“Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque” Tells the Story of the Man as well as the Black Experience in the South

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: While Ed Mitchell’s The Preserve barbecue restaurant is still yet to announce its long-awaited opening in Raleigh, Ed and his son Ryan have stayed busy writing and releasing a barbecue cookbook co-written by them with author, filmmaker, and scholar (among many other things) Zella Palmer. But the book is so much more than your standard barbecue cookbook with recipes. Interwoven throughout is the history of Ed “The Pitmaster” Mitchell and his family in eastern NC as well as stories from the past to illustrate the black experience in the South, whether its the barbecue, tobacco, farming, or fishing.

The hardcover book is a gorgeously assembled book with Baxter Miller’s beautiful color photography of the Mitchells and the food for each recipe. Speaking of the food, in addition to the standard barbecue recipes you would expect – whole hog, brisket, ribs, chicken, etc – Ed really explores eastern NC recipes of dishes and sides through his family history and his experiences. Touchingly, many of the dishes are named for prominent black figures in his life.

From a storytelling angle, Ed tells his side of a couple of notable stories throughout chapters in the book – the time he went to prison for 30 days for not paying sales tax for his Wilson family restaurant (it should be noted that he later successfully sued the bank for racial discrimination and wrongful foreclosure), meeting Anthony Bourdain early in his fledgling media career, beating Bobby Flay at ribs, going to Oxford, MS to meet John T. Edge and the Southern Foodways Alliance, and his many years attending the Big Apple Block Party while only receiving on a small stipend for his efforts.

But Ed’s isn’t the only voice you read throughout the book. Other members of the Mitchell family get a chance to tell their story, including his son Ryan as well as his younger brothers Aubrey and Stevie. His mom Doretha in particular is a trip and essentially takes over the dessert chapter in the back of the book with her tales. And outside of the Mitchell family, the prologue features notable contributions in the form of introductory chapters by co-author Zella Palmer (whose family’s roots are in Eastern NC), Wilson, NC historian Lisa Y. Henderson, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance John T. Edge, and barbecuer/rocket scientists Dr. Howard Conyers.

Unfortunately, as of the writing of this post Ed Mitchell’s The Preserve still doesn’t have an opening date in Raleigh but the website still indicates a 2023 opening. I hope Ed Mitchell is able to soon open his restaurant and that it is successful, because the barbecue world is better when he’s actively cooking in it. Until then, “Ed Mitchell’s Barbecue” is a worthy read and deserving of shelf space in your bookcase.

Smokestack Lightning Captures the Simpler, Pre-Barbecue Boom Times in America

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: In the early 2000’s, a decade or so before the barbecue boom of the 2010’s, Lolis Eric Elie, wrote a hybrid barbecue/great American road trip/recipe book. Subtitled “Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country,” Smokestack Lightning is named after a song by the blues legend Howlin’ Wolf and was released in 2005. It was initially inspired by Elie’s travels with the Wynton Marsalis band where they would always seek out good barbecue while on tour. More specifically, it was inspired by a stop in Wilson, NC where they tasted barbecue and ribs from Bill’s Barbecue. That taste of barbecue sparked this book documenting an epic barbecue odyssey.

Smokestack Lightning is a wandering travelogue through some specific barbecue cities or regions, sometimes with a plan but oftentimes just whatever Elie and his photographer/partner-in-crime Frank Stewart stumble into (the chapter on Chicago in particular) in their vehicle, a Volvo wagon they dubbed the “Living Legend.”

Not only do they explore the restaurants of barbecue hotbeds in Tennessee, Chicago, Texas, Kansas City, and the Carolinas, Elie and Stewart also take a dip into the competition scene at Memphis in May and the Big Pig Jig in Vienna, Georgia. Along the way, they document both the food they taste and the people they meet as sorts of cultural anthropologists. Stewart photographs are sprinkled throughout the book, and while I appreciate the beauty of black and white photography, I can’t help but wish the book was printed in color.

On their travels, Elie and Stewart find a lot of mediocre-to-bad barbecue but there are one or two bright spots everywhere they go that are adhering to the old ways of barbecue smoked over wood – Vera’s Backyard Barbecue in Brownsville, TX, Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart, TX, Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, NC, Cozy Corner in Memphis, to name a few.

Lolis Eric Elie has recently dipped back into the barbecue book world, co-writing Rodney Scott’s barbecue book “Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ” which was released in 2021. I’d love to see him do a sequel to Smokestack Lightning now to see how much the barbecue world has changed 20 years later, for better and for worse. Regardless, “Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in Barbecue Country” is a worthy documentation of the time before America’s barbecue explosion that was to come.

Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in Barbecue Country is available new and used on Amazon

Barbecue Bros Book Club: “Praise the Lard” by Mike Mills and Amy Mills

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: Maybe its just since I’ve been paying attention more, but the past few years has seen an explosion of barbecue books in conjunction with the barbecue boom. “Praise The Lard: Recipes and Revelations from a Legendary Life in Barbecue” by the late Mike Mills and his daughter and business partner Amy came out in 2017 and is their second book after 2005’s “Peace, Love, & Barbecue” and was on the front edge of the recent barbecue book trend.

Mike and Amy are able to set their book apart from some of those other books by managing to infuse their voice throughout the book instead of just in an introductory chapter or two. Of course there is that chapter that explains how the barbecue restaurant got started after finding success on the competition circuit. But unlike some other books I’ve read recently, they return throughout the rest of the book.

They connect their recipes to their family history and speaking of history, they sprinkle a little bit of the history of their town Murphysboro, IL throughout the book.

They also aren’t shy about shouting out brands they use, which I actually think is one of the best parts of the book. From seasonings and spices to specialty sodas to cookware to barbecue gear and gadgets, they’ve got a multiple page list in the back that shows you where to get that they prefer. Of course they also have that list on their website so you don’t need the physical book for that.

Another standout is the photography by the always-excellent Ken Goodman, who also did Ed Randolph’s “Smoked” book in 2019.

Sadly, Mike Mills passed away in December 2020 but he was truly a towering figure in the world of barbecue. “Praise the Lard” is a small but worthy part of his legacy.

Would I add this to my bookshelf?

More than most recent books, the answer is possibly yes. Actually, I might want to check out “Peace, Love, and Barbecue” first and then make a decision.

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.