Barbecue Bros Book Club: “Michael Symon’s Playing With Fire” by Michael Symon

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: Michael Symon’s Playing with Fire: BBQ and More from the Grill, Smoker, and Fireplace: A Cookbook is part of a recent trend of cookbooks from barbecue personalities. See: Rodney Scott (2021), Aaron Franklin (2015), Matthew Register (2019), Christopher Prieto (2019), Ed Randolph (2019), Sam Jones (2019), and Elliott Moss (2016). Not that I mind, as it has clearly given me lots of content over the years.

As for Michael Symon’s contribution to the barbecue cookbook world (which came out in 2018), he starts off with a short “love letter to live-fire cooking” and that sets the tone for the rest of the book. Not strictly a barbecue book, Symon includes a lot of grilling recipes informed by his love of Cleveland.

Symon makes his case for “Cleveland-style barbecue,” which is “a style and menu that draw upon Cleveland’s rich cultural heritage, much of which is firmly rooted in eastern Europe.” He goes on “We season meats with Jewish deli-style pastrami spices, our kielbasa is made by a sixty-year-old Ukrainian butcher at the West Side Market, we smoke over locally sourced apple- and cherrywoods; we serve Hungarian-based sides like spaetzle and cabbage; our tangy mustard-based sauce is designed around the legendary local stadium-style mustard Bertman Ball Park.”

Outside of the typical barbecue recipes, that is what sets this book apart. I was disappointed that we only really get Symon’s perspective in the introductory letter and some of the short intros to the recipes. Contrasted with Rodney Scott’s recent book that bared so much of his barbecue soul and history, it seems like a missed opportunity.

All in all, Michael Symon’s “Playing with Fire” features nice food photography and a slightly different point of view, but is far from an essential barbecue book. I’d recommend checking out the books from Sam Jones, Elliott Moss, Rodney Scott, or Aaron Franklin first and then preview this book at your library to see if Cleveland-style barbecue and live-fire cooking with ingredients native to that region is of interest to you.

Barbecue Bros Book Club: The Texas Monthly 2021 Top 50 Issue

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. And in this case, barbecue magazine issues.

Every four years, the most anticipated issue of Texas Monthly is awaited not only by Texas barbecue fans but also by just about all Texas barbecue restaurants as well. The Top 50 is the end product of “32 Texas Monthly editorial staffers and 3 freelancers [who] visited 411 barbecue joints over eight weeks during the spring and summer, driving many thousands of miles in the process.”

As for the issue itself, the Texas Monthly Top 50 and its related features takes up about 30 pages of the November issue of the magazine. That covers: the top 10 with extended write ups, shorter write-ups on the remaining 40 of the 50, a list of the 50 honorable mentioned joints, plus a couple of short articles. Beautiful photos are featured throughout.

I can’t help but be struck by the newness of the joints in the top 50 but also the youth of several of the top joints. The five pitmasters at #1 joint Goldee’s BBQ in Fort Worth are all under 27, the five listed pitmasters at #3 Truth Barbeque in Houston are all under 35, Evan LeRoy of #5 LeRoy and Lewis is 35, and four of the other joints in the top 10 have pitmasters under 40 (Franklin Barbeque, Evie Mae’s Pit Barbeque, Snow’s BBQ, and Panther City BBQ). And as noted in the lead-in, 29 of the top 50 are new to the list.

Goldee’s Barbecue in particular is one I hope to visit soon. Besides the youth of the pitmasters noted above, I love the multi-culturality. Black, white, Laotian; these are some of the new faces of always changing barbecue scene.

Also included in the issue is the updated Top 50 BBQ Joints Passport, a highly coveted item for all Texas BBQ hunters. As folks visit the various joints, they get a stamp in the hopes of completing the passport. Who knows if I’ll get the opportunity to get stamps of my own, but I urge folks to practice civility when visiting these joints in the coming weeks and months. I recall anecdotal evidence of impatience and ugliness after the last list drop in 2017.

The Texas Monthly Top 50 issue is available through the Texas Monthly Store online (now sold out) for those of us not in Texas but be warned that you will be paying about $15 for the single issue after shipping. It’s also available as part of “The Ultimate Texas BBQ Guide Bundle” which will run you $50 before shipping (also now sold out). Even with the increased price for those out of state, it’s worth having for any serious barbecue fan.

Barbecue Bros Book Club: “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue” by Adrian Miller

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: Of the barbecue books we’ve covered over the past few years, “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue” by James Beard Award-winning author and self-proclaimed “Soul Food Scholar” Adrian Miller may just be the most important of them all. In Miller’s approachable writing style, he looks to correct the decades of whitewashing the Black (and even Native American) contribution to the revered American institution of barbecue in a very detailed and heavily researched fashion.

In the first half of his book, Miller corrects the historical narrative starting with Native Americans who laid the foundations of the process of smoking as well as the apparatus to perform it on. Whereas Native Americans were not widely enslaved, that is unfortunately where the Black contribution begins. Miller traces from the slave origins to the rise of the Black barbecue specialists who sometimes did the work without the credit of white barbecue men all the way to the modern black restaurant entrepreneurs like Henry Perry, the “Barbecue King” of Kansas City, Walter Jones of Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, AR, and Jack Patillo of Beaumont, TX.

While the first half deals with the past, the second half explores the current climate as it relates to where African Americans sit in regards to restaurants, sauces, competitions and also looks ahead to the future of black barbecue. Rodney Scott, former Top Chef contestant Kenny Gilbert, and Ed and Ryan Mitchell are profiled in depth while Miller takes a pulse of barbecue recognition today through the efforts of other historians and writers such as Michael Twitty and Howard Conyers. Ultimately, he ends in a hopeful place.

Speaking of in-depth profiles, a minor complaint is that they oftentimes come mid-chapter (some times even mid-sentence) without warning or color coding. Once I became accustomed to how they were used, I found that I usually just skipped past and then came back after I finished the chapter. They are important and oftentimes covered newly discovered Black barbecue figures (such as Marie Jean of Arkansas or John “Doc” Hamilton of Seattle) but I wish they were utilized a little differently.

Bravo to Adrian Miller on writing a comprehensive history of the Black contribution to American barbecue. “Black Smoke” is a must read for not only those interested in barbecue history but also American history.

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.