Americans from Boise to Bangor know by now that when they yank the cover off a Weber Grill and wheel it out of the garage for another season of hot dogs and beer-can chicken, they’re not fiddling with barbecue. And yet books about smoked meat bloom in spring as reliably as dogwood trees.
This year’s crop of barbecue books includes two excellent titles, both of which are especially relevant to the Lowcountry: John Shelton Reed’s simply titled “Barbecue,” an entry in the University of North Carolina Press’ Savor the South series, and Rien Fertel’s “The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog.”
The authors share a deep reverence for Southern barbecue and the traditions associated with it. But Reed and Fertel are propagating two very different messages. Reed’s book is a collection of recipes, so he’s more or less telling readers that they too can produce superlative barbecue so long as they can scare up a cooker, a pair of thermometers, starter chimney, aluminum foil, wire brush and squirt bottle.
“I’m not going to tell you how to cheat, though,” he writes in his introduction, alluding to liquid smoke and Crock-Pots. “You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.”
There aren’t any recipes in Fertel’s book, devoted to underscoring the absolute impossibility of replicating the miracles that occur within the South’s most storied pits.
“Several pitmasters have maintained that their sauce recipes emerged from their dreams,” he confides. West Tennessee’s legendary Ricky Parker, presented in the introduction as “the man who counted hogs to keep both himself and barbecue alive,” is dead by Fertel’s last chapter.
To be fair, Fertel’s focus is whole hog barbecue, which Reed concedes is out of reach for most hobbyists. “Frankly, I leave whole-hog cooking to the professionals, and you might want to do the same,” Reed writes, suggesting first-timers concentrate on shoulders. “When you’re pretty sure you’re ready to cook a hog, videos aplenty on the web will show you how, sort of, or (since you’re reading this and seem to be a holdover from the Age of Literacy) you can find instructions in a number of Southern cookbooks.”
Reed is unapologetically opinionated, but his confidence is as sweet a match for his subject as peach cobbler. He likes barbecue rub on his popcorn, lard in his cornpone and Texas Pete on his boiled potatoes. And if you don’t, that’s OK too: Rather than rail against the sorry state of sweet tea appreciation, Reed calmly suggests leaving out the sugar “if you’re feeding diabetics or Yankees.”
In Reed’s telling, nothing about barbecue is overly complicated. “Personally, I prefer whipped cream to the meringue topping called for here,” he writes in the header for Nabisco’s original Nilla Wafer Banana Pudding recipe, “but you don’t need a recipe for whipped cream either.”
By contrast, Fertel is riveted by alchemy. He admiringly describes South Carolina’s Jackie Hite making hash, “insistently toss(ing) a few shovelfuls of hickory embers alongside the pot to impart barbecue’s classic smokiness to the stew.” Mesmerizing moments like that inspired the book’s main narrative device: For one month, Fertel and a photographer friend (whose work is relegated to a minor supporting role) darted around the Carolinas and Tennessee in his parents’ new RV.
Repeatedly, Fertel acknowledges that he’s late to Americana adventuring. Forty years ago, he could have been the Charles Kuralt of Southern smoked meat operations. Now he’s chasing embers. “I am not the first barbecue fan, not the first to drive around North Carolina armed with pen and recorder,” he writes, before recounting what Goldsboro’s Keith Ward told him: “There’s been guys here. Just like you. I don’t mind sitting here and explaining it to them. It’s just one of those things where you work and don’t get paid.”
Fertel concludes, “I’m a culinary interloper, a barbecue dilettante and a crackpot connoisseur.”
But he’s also a winning writer, blessed with the gift of being able to incorporate back stories and scenic details without making a fuss about it. He spends far more time in the company of people than food, but he’s good at conveying the joy of eating. He’s also acutely attuned to the words people choose for their slogans and praise, because each of Fertel’s phrases is plucked from the ether with the care Parker took to free the “catfish” — “a six-by-three-inch strap of meat embedded under the tenderloin” — from his finished pigs.
“Most everyone associated with the Skylight Inn describes the process using the word ‘nothing,’ as in, there’s nothing on it,” Fertel writes about Ayden, N.C.’s best-known pit. “There’s nothing in it. There’s nothing to it. This is nothing fancy. But there’s something to be said for nothing.”
Too late to pioneer barbecue documentation, Fertel got to Skylight too soon to fully chronicle the opening of a new restaurant by pitmaster Sam Jones. That development’s relegated to an epilogue, along with the fire at Rodney Scott’s pit in Hemingway, and the opening of Buxton Hall in Asheville, which occurred after Fertel’s book went to press. But barbecue’s timeless, right?
(“Barbecue: A Savor The South Cookbook” by John Shelton Reed. University of North Carolina Press, $20)
(“The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke and The Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog” by Rien Fertel. Touchstone, $25.)