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.