Catching up with “The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America” Author Johnny Fugitt

Monk: In October 2013, St. Louis native Johnny Fugitt set off on an epic road trip across the lower 48 US states to try one barbecue restaurant per day for an entire year (Speedy and I were able to meet up with him in Charlotte). Johnny accomplished that feat, and his 2015 book “The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America” was the result (our book club review here), where his #1 was an unexpected Austin joint (no spoilers here).

However, in the years since we haven’t heard much from Johnny; his site Barbecue Rankings hasn’t consistently been updated since 2016 and his Twitter since 2017. I recently wondered the reasons behind the hiatus of sorts, so I reached out to him for an interview to see what he’s been up to lately. Big thanks to Johnny for his time and thoughtful answers as well as the use of some of his photos from the big trip.

So last time we caught up during your yearlong barbecue odyssey I believe you were based in St. Louis. Where are you now and what have you been up to for the past few years?
Missouri is home, but I haven’t been there much the last few years. I’m in the Navy Reserves and that brought me to the Middle East in early 2016 for what was supposed to be a year. Three years later I’m still here. I agreed to extend and support so it wasn’t as if I was forced into anything. I’m not here for too much longer, however, as I’ll return to the States this summer. Obviously friends and family are the main thing one misses when away, but it’ll also be great to get back to the regular, American patterns of life. Among other things, I miss watching sports and sharing that experience with a community, the ease of American life and, as you can imagine, foods. Barbecue is at the top of that list, but Mexican food and Chick-Fil-A are up there too. I also just miss the ritual and shared experiences of big meals with loved ones – the prep work in the kitchen, passing plates around the table and the simple laughs over a meal. 

You mentioned you had been focusing on freelancing more recently. What type of work have you been doing?
I started freelancing when I kicked off the book project in 2013. Once the book came out I wrote and edited full-time for a couple years and really enjoyed it, even though it isn’t the easiest way to make a living. I loved meeting a variety of people, the flexibility of the work and being my own boss. Unfortunately I have had little opportunity to keep that up over the last three years as you can tell by my outdated Barbecue Rankings site. Nevertheless, I still write and edit just a little bit for some St. Louis-based outlets. It’s actually quite therapeutic for me as it helps take me home mentally for a few hours and offers an escape. I’ve written a little bit about some of my international travels while on leave and covered a few things where a local presence is not required.

Are you still eating barbecue much and if so, how often? And are you still as skinny as ever?
I don’t think I’ll ever match the pace or amount of barbecue I ate on my tour for the book. With that said, my barbecue consumption is definitely at a low point now, not by choice but simply by my surroundings. First, on occasions when the galley serves something akin to barbecue (often baked or steamed), let’s just say I go with another entree. Locally, pork isn’t easy to find in the Middle East and I don’t have a smoker or even charcoal grill with which to work. Options are not great. I am still pretty lanky. An active lifestyle is a big part of that now.

What’s the best barbecue you’ve had recently?
It’s been a while. I was able to spend four days in Missouri last May – just enough time to see family for a couple days, watch the Cardinals play at Busch Stadium and get some City Butcher in Springfield, Missouri. Some restaurants drop off over time for a variety of reasons – over-expansion, cost cutting, pitmaster departures, for example – but I think City Butcher is only getting better and it was already one of my favorite places years ago when I did my book tour and they had just opened. I look forward to a barbecue binge this summer when I get home.

Any plans to get back into barbecue game in some aspect? No chance there’s going to be a second book, right?
I certainly hope to reintegrate into the barbecue community upon my return home. Maybe I’ll do some freelance work covering barbecue restaurants, maybe join a competition team sometime down the road, maybe do a little more restaurant consulting, who knows? I don’t know exactly how that will look, but I miss it. I miss the food, but also the community. You can meet some incredibly kind, interesting, gracious, hard-working people in the barbecue world. I certainly hope to write more books, but I don’t know that I’ll ever get to embark upon a year-long road trip around America again. 

Anything else?
I’m glad you guys are so dedicated to Barbecue Bros. We started around the same time with, I believe, some shared values and goals – provide a local voice in barbecue to share news, give honest opinions, build community and explore something we love.

Linkdown: 3/2/16

– This article on barbecue treats from Robert Moss considers the misleading names of Texas Pete, Cheerwine, and burnt ends

– Sam Jones has partnered with Heinz to create a “Carolina Vinegar Style” barbecue sauce

– John Shelton Reed has a new barbecue cookbook coming – appropriately titled “Barbecue”

– He’s also having an event at the new Durham barbecue restaurant Picnic to celebrate the release of his book

– Midwood Smokehouse is havin a ‘cue and wine pairing at their Ballantyne location on March 16

– Only In Your State has 10 More Restaurants That Serve The Best Barbecue in North Carolina and well, it certainly is a list

– Interview with our friend Johnny Fugitt

– Midwood Smokehouse is asking for votes for Charlotte Magazine’s Best of the Best Awards 2016

Linkdown: 12/9/15

– Robert Moss follows the mustard line from SC down through Georgia and into Florida

– If you are looking for a gift for the NC barbecue or beer lover in your life:

– Daniel Vaughn explores the greaseballs of Southwest Texas at Patillo’s Bar-B-Q

-Johnny Fugitt profiles Smokee Mo’s BBQ for St. Louis Magazine

– Marie, Let’s Eat! revisits the 50 year old Hickory Hut BBQ in Dallas, GA

– NPR’s The Salt food blog profiles Sam Jones’ new barbecue joint, Sam Jones BBQ

To understand the significance of Sam Jones BBQ, you have to understand the place in the barbecue firmament. And you have to start with barbecue’s place in the Tar Heel state. Aficionados regard North Carolina not only as a capital of barbecue, but a cradle of the cuisine. It is as central as basketball to the state’s identity.

But so many barbecue joints have replaced wood with gas that some folks feared the impending death of all-wood pit cooking. The North Carolina Barbecue Society estimated a few years ago that only 30 wood-pit barbecue restaurants were left in the state. To diehards, the demise of traditional wood-smoked barbecue in North Carolina would be tantamount to a death in the family. Maybe worse.

Linkdown: 9/30/15

– This year’s 86th Annual Mallard Creek Barbecue will be on Thursday, October 22

– Queen City Q and the Hornets enter into a partnership for the upcoming NBA season

As part of the multi-year agreement, Queen City Q will operate a pair of branded concession stands at Time Warner Cable Arena, one on the lower level and one on the upper level, allowing fans to enjoy some of the area’s best and most popular barbecue while attending events in the building.  Queen City Q products will also be featured on the arena’s suite menus.

– Charlotte Agenda makes one of their bold and click-baity proclamations that “the best barbecue in Charlotte just might be sold by Boy Scouts

-The second Charlotte-area location of Smoke opens in Stonecrest next week

– Steve Raichlen has some barbecue secrets from Ed Mitchell in the HuffPo

– Marie, Let’s Eat! visits the newer, larger Character’s Famouse BBQ in Adairsville, GA – you might recognize its pitmaster Michael Character from BBQ Pitmasters

– NOLA Smokehouse in New Orleans closes this Saturday

– Johnny Fugitt has 7 recipes he must try from the 12 Bones cookbook

– Robert Moss’ list of the south’s best barbecue beverages rightly includes Cheerwine

– Some details on a pre-Barbecue Festival shindig:

-Speaking of Lexington, Brad Livengood of The Lexington Dispatch has some barbecue history regarding pirates I previously had not come across

Pirates loved to party, and there was nothing like a good pig picking to make a party atmosphere. So they devised a process based upon an apparatus made of green wood. It was a rack of sorts, to hold the pig’s carcass as it was being smoked. The rack was placed over a pit filled with charred embers to slowly simmer the meat. They called the process, the boucan. Its practitioners were soon known as boucaneers. The often used synonym for pirate, buccaneer, comes from this method of cooking barbecue. I don’t know if there was hickory wood involved, but it surely was smoked and pit-cooked. So we lovers of barbecue in Davidson County have something in common with Blackbeard and his ilk, and it’s just a short walk down the pages of history from the tastebuds of some cutthroat pirate to our love of a chopped sandwich today.

– Lucky Peach says there are 14 (!?) styles of american barbecue