Barbecue Bros Book Club: “On Barbecue” by John Shelton Reed

Not that we’re anywhere close to being qualified enough to evaluate books but more so as a public service announcement we will periodically discuss barbecue and barbecue-related books.

Monk: If John Shelton Reed writes a book on barbecue, I’m reading it. Because he writes about the subject so intelligently and (not to mention wittily) from both a historical as well as a cultural viewpoint, his insights always make me think and often chuckle.

“Holy Smoke: The Big Book of NC Barbecue” was co-written by Reed, his since-passed wife Dale Volberg Reed, and William McKinney and is likely my favorite book on the subject (certainly the case when it comes to North Carolina barbecue). His “Barbecue” book for UNC Press’ Savor the South Series is more than just a barbecue recipe book. And any freelance work from him that comes across my Google Alerts I read immediately.

In addition to being an accomplished author, John Shelton Reed is the co-founder (along with Dan Levine) and “Eminence Grease” of The Campaign for Real Barbecue, also known as True ‘Cue. There, he advocates for wood-smoked barbecue (sometimes ruffling the feathers of folks like Carey Bringle of Peg Leg Porker). Again, I’m a huge fan.

With that buildup, “On Barbecue” is his latest book and is a collection of his barbecue writings over the years (by far is his most written-about subject), which includes book reviews, freelance articles, some True ‘Cue newsletter writings, and an excerpt from “Holy Smoke.” Our friend John Tanner wrote up the book nicely over on his blog but I’ll add to the praise chorus as well.

In it, Reed is able to connect his previous works into a cohesive narrative across a fairly quick read. From the true origins of barbecue (both the practice and the word itself) to the current state of it to the invasion of gassers into barbecue restaurants to the nuances of barbecue in the state of North Carolina, I read the 157 pages in a couple of sittings but could have easily read in just one. And what a great cover.

I was graciously provided a copy of the book by Reed in exchange for an honest review (which you’ve just read) but the honest truth is that I would have purchased it with my own money no matter what. I urge you barbecue fans out there to purchase it at your nearest independent bookstore and give it a read.

Barbecue Bros Book Club: “Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ” by Rodney Scott and Lolis Eric Elie

Not that we’re anywhere close to being qualified enough to evaluate books but more so as a public service announcement we will periodically discuss barbecue and barbecue-related books.

Monk: Two of the most highly anticipated barbecue books of the year came out within a few weeks of each other, with “Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ” by Rodney Scott and Lolis Eric Elie coming out first on March 16 followed by Adrian Miller’s “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue” on April 27.

The first half of Rodney’s book is all memoir, recounting his origins in tiny Hemingway, SC working at Scott’s Bar-B-Que the family barbecue restaurant and convenience store. The story of how he got from there to co-owning Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ in Charleston, Birmingham, and Atlanta (with two more Alabama locations planned just this year) is fairly well worn territory if you’ve heard an interview or watched Netflix’s “Chef’s Table: BBQ.” What’s not as familiar or well-known is Scott’s current family dynamic, particularly with his father Roosevelt “Rosie” Scott.

In sometimes painful detail, Scott and Elie describe how the breakdown of their relationship started with some mistrust as a result of Scott’s budding barbecue celebrity. Even though all of his work and travel was on behalf of the family business, false accusations and rumors began to circulate in their small town. And that ultimately led to a severing of his relationship with his father and Scott departing for Charleston and starting his budding barbecue restaurant empire. His current relationship with both his father and mother is nonexistent as of the writing of this book and the press tours he’s done this spring.

The book is written in Scott’s voice, which can surely be attributed to Elie’s help. Scott’s mantra is “Every Day is a Good Day” and that blue skies philosophy is clear when reading his writing. A cookbook written by Scott himself was surely a draw, but adding in an accomplished writer such as Elie only added to the appeal. Lolis wrote a seminal text in “Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country” back in 2005, a book that has been on my radar for quite some time.

The second half of the book is all recipes, starting with how to set up and smoke a whole hog on a cinder block pit in great detail (similar to what Sam Jones and Elliot Moss described in their respective books). From there, it’s all Scott’s menu and point of view, informed by his Pee Dee South Carolina origins.

While Adrian Miller’s “Black Smoke” traced the history and contributions of African Americans to barbecue’s history, Scott’s book actually makes some history of its own, being the first barbecue book by a black pitmaster/chef ever (think about that). “Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ” is a must read barbecue book that gives you just as much insight into the man behind the barbecue empire as well as his food.

Barbecue Bros Book Club: “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Revised and Expanded Second Edition” by Robert Moss

Not that we’re anywhere close to being qualified enough to evaluate books but more so as a public service announcement we will periodically discuss barbecue and barbecue-related books.

Monk: If you have an interest in barbecue outside of recipes, personal memoirs, and restaurant guides, Robert Moss is one of the best barbecue writers working these days and a must-read. Sure, Moss does some of that other stuff too, but what I love is how he really digs into the history of barbecue in great detail, scouring archives going back several centuries for mentions of barbecue or barbecued meats to help him truly understand the history of the food in the US.

In this “Revised and Expanded Second Edition” of his 2010 book Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Moss further expands on the history of barbecue after his years of research as part of his role as the contributing barbecue editor for Southern Living magazine, where he periodically files blog posts on his findings in addition to contributing his best barbecue joints lists.

Research from other barbecue writers such as Daniel Vaughn, Barbecue Editor of Texas Monthly, J.C. Reid of the Houston Chronicle, and Joe Haynes, author of several books on the history of barbecue in Virginia, has been added to round out Moss’s historical breakdown. Particularly, he beefs up the pre-colonial and colonial origins as well as provide more color on the beginnings of barbecue stands and ultimately restaurants starting in the late 19th century.

Moss also includes the barbecue traditions of Kentucky and the south side of Chicago, which were not included in the original book.

Additionally, whereas Moss’s original edition left off with barbecue in an uncertain place with the move to gas and electric smokers, by this point we are all aware of the big explosion in barbecue; or as Moss refers to it in his Afterword, the “second golden age of barbecue.”

Since the original publication date of the first edition of the book, barbecue in the US has seen a move to more of a craft-sensibility, bringing back all-wood smokers that require constant attention and rejecting the “set it and forget it” nature of the gas and electric smokers that had become favored by national and regional chains as well as the smeller joints who were looking to cut corners.

Moss points to Aaron Franklin as the turning point in the second golden age of barbecue not only in regards to the return to all-wood fired pits but also the prominence of Texas barbecue and platters in the meat market style of central Texas. That was the dominant trend until roughly 2015 where whole hog barbecue has come back into prominence thanks to Rodney Scott, Sam Jones, Dr. Howard Conyers, Bryan Furman of B’s Crackling Barbeque, Elliott Moss of Buxton Hall Barbecue, Tyson Ho of Arrogant Swine, and others.

Conveniently, Moss is also able to speak to the assertion by Washington Post writer Jim Shahin in that to see the future of barbecue, you can look to Charleston, where he just so happens to reside. The Lowcountry town that had been more known for fine dining now seemingly has all of the barbecue trends within its city limits, and sometimes all within a few blocks radius. Texas barbecue from John Lewis, whole hog from Rodney Scott and Swig & Swine’s Summerville location, the move back to all wood smoked barbecue from Melvin’s Barbecue, plus independently owned barbecue operations instead of chains.

In this revised and expanded second edition, Moss ends the book certain in the knowledge that American barbecue, the food intertwined with the very history of our great nation, is in a very solid place with its future secure.

Barbecue Bros Book Club: “Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South” by John T. Edge

Not that we’re anywhere close to being qualified enough to evaluate books but more so as a public service announcement we will periodically discuss barbecue and barbecue-related books.

Monk: John T. Edge’s book “Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South” is the latest in a series of similar-but-unrelated books I’ve read recently that fall into a similar bucket. That is, short profiles on classic restaurants – be they southern, soul food, barbecue joint or otherwise. What ultimately sets “Southern Belly” apart is that it covers the entire south state-by-state from East Texas to Virginia as well as the writing of John T. Edge. Man, that guy knows how turn a phrase.

Any posts or stories about John T. Edge should acknowledge the recent accusations of him. A New York Times story from the summer called him the “white gatekeeper of southern food” and noted the numerous calls from current and former staff members and contributors for him to step down as director of the Southern Foodways Alliance after 20 years in favor of a person of color. What a 12-person audit conducted over the summer ultimately led to was Edge keeping his position for the time being but promising “to make immediate improvements and launch a long-term strategic review of the nonprofit group to diversify a predominantly White staff and leadership tasked with the study of a food culture created largely by enslaved people.” Critics of the audit outcome note the lack of specificity when it comes to a plan or even a timeline for Edge’s departure. Worth following for sure if and when more specifics are announced.

In a year when the James Beard Awards was cancelled allegedly due to no black winners, it seems as if 2020 is the year of chickens coming home to roost for the historically white food institutions.

Ultimately, I decided to still read “Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Companion to the South” in light of all of the recent accusations regarding John T. Edge. It’s still a worthy read and can point you to some great restaurants (at least those that are still around since the original 2007 publish date). Take that for what you will, but if you do check it out, be sure to read with eyes open.