My first encounter with John Shelton Reed came during my final semester in college, when I was his student during his final semester teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill. His course on the sociology of the South challenged students to see it as a region that, while by no means homogenous, has an identity as distinctive as it is debated. My family had been in the South since the days of Jamestown, so the issues Reed raised felt especially relevant. I have grappled with them ever since.
Since his retirement, Reed has become widely known as a barbecue expert and spokesman of a particular sort; rather than aligning himself with the parochialism that marks much of the discussion surrounding regional barbecue styles, he has come to champion the authentic expression of each variety as something worth preserving. His 2009 book, Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, helped cement his status as an authoritative barbecue voice. And in his role as the cofounder of The Campaign for Real Barbecue, he uses his scholarly credibility and erudition to preserve the practice of smoking meat in traditional Tar Heel fashion.
A few weeks ago, Reed released his latest book, simply titled Barbecue, through UNC Press's Savor the South series. An introductory essay outlines his philosophy and his methodology for compiling the barbecue recipes from across the South that shape the book.
Nearly two decades after Reed commanded me to think more about the region I've always called home, I called him on the phone for an afternoon talk about barbecue.
INDY: Barbecue can be contentious. How did you go about finding authoritative recipes for this book?
JOHN SHELTON REED: I've been eating barbecue for a long time. I have a sister in Memphis, and my daughter and son-in-law live in Austin. I taught for a bit in South Carolina and have been traveling around and writing about and talking about the South since 1969. The book's recipes are a mix—from people I know, friends of friends, directly from restaurants (though some were predictably reticent to share). I wrote authors of some cookbooks I consider authoritative. I even did some reverse engineering for several sauces and rubs. I'd get a dozen Kansas City sauce recipes, put them in a spreadsheet, see what was universal and what was idiosyncratic, then devise and test recipes based on that.
In your view, what's behind the traditional barbecue resurgence?
Lots of the barbecue chains that are now coming along are placeless. You get the same menu in St. Louis as you do in Chicago as you do anywhere else in the country. It can taste good, but I'm not happy about people thinking this is true barbecue. I like to call places like that "The International House of BBQ."
As far as a resurgence of what I'll call "craft barbecue"—cooking the barbecue over wood, with organic, pasture-raised hogs and beef—it is parallel to the rise in people caring where their food comes from. That's one reason why a barbecue sandwich costs more now, but it's very much worth it.
There is plainly a strong tie to those ideas and to the slow-food movement. The newer generation of barbecue cooks and pitmasters are self-conscious in a way the old barbecue guys weren't. There is a dogmatism or even fundamentalism in their devotion to cooking over wood coals, pulling the pork, etcetera. There's a return to orthodoxy that indicates a real respect for these traditions and the regions they represent.
You mentioned that dogmatism over what is considered barbecue or not is relatively recent. What accounts for that?
The tie to geography, particularly in North Carolina, overlays rivalries between the east and the Piedmont. Differing economies, settlement patterns, plantation systems (or the lack thereof), and differences in the European and African migrations to areas of the state all play a role in these identities. In some ways, arguing about what makes barbecue barbecue stands in as a proxy for fighting about other things. The Texas-North Carolina smoked meat rivalry indicates this on a regional level. The reason for the relatively recent bubbling up of these arguments might be due to the increasing homogenization of other aspects of American cultural life. Barbecue—at least good barbecue that pays homage to local traditions—can still stand for a place.
You've said elsewhere that, for some decades now, the rest of the U.S. is becoming more like the South. How much do you think the spread of our food traditions is an indicator of that?
What seems to happen is that, when we export things from the South, people eventually tend to then think of them no longer as Southern, but American. Whether that's a good thing or not is a matter of interpretation. On the other hand, I'm seeing grits showing up on the Amtrak from Chicago to San Francisco, and they were really well done, so I can't complain.
What appears or claims to be "Southern barbecue" is popping up lots of places with a Southern provenance, but all the things that are popping up outside the South aren't necessarily representative of any particular tradition at all. For example, I've had Memphis barbecue on Haight Street, and it was pretty good. In a place like San Francisco, or Salt Lake City, or wherever else where there are no defining local barbecue traditions, people are entitled to do that, even if it sometimes is the International House of BBQ. That's OK, because they're doing it well.
As far as Southern food traditions go, I'll leave it up to you whether or not you consider Kansas City to be in the South, but that style seems to be taking over. It is what much of the country outside of the South considers to be "Southern barbecue." One reason for this takeover is that they are the major sponsor of barbecue competitions. If you're going to compete, you do it by their rules. You have to cook pork, chicken, ribs, and brisket, and you have to use their sauce in order to win. That sauce is a very thick, sweet concoction that has little to do with the culinary traditions of the South. Kansas City came late to the party, but it's becoming what people elsewhere think of when they think of barbecue, whether or not they are Southern.
You have a recipe in the book for " barbecue hash," which was new to me. It does point to a favorite of mine—liver mush, an item I grew up having at home and at barbecue restaurants for breakfast.
That particular item is pretty safely confined to the North Carolina Piedmont and foothills. I don't think you'll run into liver mush at the International House of BBQ any time soon.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Master Smoke"