Also known as the other feud from Fertel’s book “The One True Barbecue” (our take here). In the chapter on Wilber’s Barbecue in the book, Wilber happened to be off work for his 83rd birthday (an extremely rare occurrence) so Fertel ends up spending his time with one of the pitmasters Keith Ward who goes by the name of “Pop”. During his time with Pop, Fertel notes a division of race between the white-owned restaurant and its white front of the house staff and the pitmasters and kitchen who tend black. This has been disputed by Wilber himself. In any case, Fertel speaks to his approach to writing the book at this appearance at Flyleaf Book Store in Chapel Hill last year as well as the supposed feud with Wilber Shirley.
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.
A collection of profiles on whole hog pitmasters throughout the southeast, “The One True Barbecue” by Rien Fertel is an enjoyable if not somewhat controversial read. In particular, Fertel ruffled feathers with his chapters on Wilber Shirley and Ed Mitchell. He portrayed the former’s restaurant as a joint with a racial division of labor between the front of the house and the back and the latter as a marketing gimmick in overalls that cooks hogs in a non-traditional manner (hot and fast rather than the traditional low and slow). However fair Fertel’s representation may or may not be (and he is but one man with his opinion), the fact that he spoke with neither for the purposes of this book only added more embers to the burn barrel.
Fertel ties the profiles together through narrative, following his path from New Orleans to the Carolinas and back, with even a stop in Bushwick to visit Arrogant Swine. Each chapter not only explores the pitmaster(s) themselves but in some cases the history of an entire town with Ayden, NC and its two joints Skylight Inn and Bum’s. He particularly favors Scott’s-Parker’s Barbecue in Lexington, TN, visiting with pitmaster Ricky Parker in the first chapter and then his sons after his death in the last chapter. In between, Fertel visits 12 other whole hog joints in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, and the aforementioned Arrogant Swine in NY.
I enjoyed Fertel’s writing and found this to be a quick read that I devoured over just a few sittings. Fertel cut his teeth writing oral histories for The Southern Foodways Alliance, and his experience writing on southern food showed. A small complaint would be that the only color photographs are confined to a section at the center of the book – I would have loved to see them throughout as opposed to the smaller black and white ones within the chapters. In any case, I can’t recommend “The One True Barbecue” enough.
I recently finished the excellent “The One True Barbecue” by Rien Fertel, where he travels the Carolinas and Tennessee and profiles the men, families, and towns behind whole hog barbecue. Part of the chapter “Will Success Spoil Rodney Scott?” covers Ed Mitchell and his previous two restaurants in Wilson and in Durham, though not in a very flattering light. Some of the controversy comes from the fact that Fertel didn’t actually interview Mitchell for the book and instead relied on his 2012 interview of the man plus additional research. Per the News & Observer:
He presents a rocky picture, and Mitchell comes across as an image-crafting marketing pro and a barbecue rogue who cooks his hogs hot and fast. Fertel compares the way Mitchell presents himself, with his bushy white beard and well-worn overalls, as the sort of hyper-Southern gimmick one would find in a Cracker Barrel dining room.
Here’s some footage taken by the excellent Gene Galin (who also does some great work for the Chatham Journal photographing NC State, UNC Chapel Hill, and Duke football) at a book reading at Flyleaf Book Store in Chapel Hill last year where he defends his portrayal of Mitchell and hopes he can speak with him at the then-upcoming Big Apple Barbecue last summer. No word if anything ever came of it.