Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Barbecue Crossroads

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Barbecue Crossroads (University of Texas Press, 2013).

There's a bit in this book where Robb Walsh, a Texas-based food writer who took several weeks driving across the southeast in the company of an amazing photographer, O. Rufus Lovett, eating barbecue and talking to chefs and pitmasters and the owners of very old restaurants, describes the sensation of being so aggravated with a clueless book that he threw it across multiple hotel rooms in several cities. Heh. Know the feeling.

140-odd pages into Barbecue Crossroads and I don't know when I've ever enjoyed a book about my hobby so much. Then I got to the chapter about Georgia barbecue. Now, y'all forgive me. It is difficult, in the printed word, to affect a pose of artificial outrage without seeming honestly aggrieved. I read the five pages - five - that Walsh deigned to bestow upon Georgia barbecue and was reminded of Arthur Dent looking up his home planet in the first edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and finding that its editors had granted it a single word: harmless. These five pages break down thusly: three pages about the very good Fresh Air Barbecue, which is between Jackson and Flovilla, half a page making the owner of Purvis Barbecue in Louisville look like a dingbat, and a page and a half singing the praises of parched peanuts. Sprinkled within them, a general dismissal of whatever other unnamed shacks he tried, and of Brunswick stew, which, done right, is simply the finest side dish that smoked pork can hope to have on offer, although he does kind of wish that he could have found a place in Georgia that still makes Brunswick stew with squirrel.

Now, you'll forgive my mixing genuine disagreement that our state was so slighted with wholly artificial outrage, but seriously? My regular Bookshelf readers might not know about it, but my wife and I write a food blog called Marie, Let's Eat!, and, if I do say so myself, we have done a fairly decent job covering barbecue within our immediate travel radius. We lack the funds to spend weeks on the road like Walsh and Lovett and envy their journey, but we do pretty well, and have, in the last three-plus years, visited and written about more than 220 barbecue restaurants, most of which are in Georgia. Even as Walsh claimed to have paced the floors of the house near Lake Lanier where they stayed, frustrated that he could not find a meal he enjoyed, my telephone did not ring. It feels, for all the world, like Walsh allowed his biases to keep him where he expected to find great stories (in Texas, Memphis, and North Carolina), and ushered him through the areas where he expected little to nothing. Speaking as someone who loves to learn and aspires to become ever better in the business of sharing the lives and the careers of people in the world of cooking and serving food, and also as someone who loves to champion the underrated wonder of the barbecue in this great state, this was 95% genuine and honest disappointment that Walsh done us so wrong, and 5% flippant fury that the jackass failed to reach out to somebody in this community's hobbyists and amateurs - if not us, then three or four others I could recommend - and break some bread with 'em before he gave up and took I-85 out of town.

And these five pages stink up the rest of the book so much for me that it's doubly disagreeable, because it's otherwise one hell of a read. There's just a hole in the middle of the book. He done us wrong, so wrong that it wounds the project almost fatally.

And it was doing so well. I acknowledge and greatly appreciate Walsh bringing up some very important points that, as a hobbyist and writer, I need to remember as I gallivant off on my little amateur expeditions. I've long been attempting to acknowledge my ethnocentrist bias, for example. There are little things, but serious things, that we can do as we write our reports and our chapters to not come across as privileged and smug. Just by reading the work of so many other hobbyists, I've become aware that there are language cues that we should all practice in our writing - excising the word "ethnic" in describing dishes or restaurants is a good start - but I was not prepared for the really fascinating chapter in which the dynamic duo visit the impoverished areas of the Mississippi and Arkansas deltas and click away at the poor folk. Walsh takes this opportunity to give a remarkable shotgun blast at Jane and Michael Stern of Roadfood.com .

I got as far as this section before I left on my most recent "circumnavigation," a two-day eating tour that I hope to take every eight months or so, during which I try to briefly visit 13-15 businesses, at least half of which have not been covered by other hobbyists or writers. (You can read about this most recent one starting here.) The section, in which Walsh and Lovett visit Craig's Barbecue in DeValls Bluff, Arkansas and find the locals not really interested in communicating with these fancy-pants food tourists, was very much on my mind, a reminder that I need to get to know the people whose stories I'm sharing. The Sterns, who visited this same establishment in 2004 on assignment for Gourmet, wrote it up with all the sensitivity of big-city toffs sharing slideshows of the carny geeks.

At the end of the first day of that tour, I spent about fifteen minutes just talking with two employees of Brooks Barbeque in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. When I got home and resumed the book, I saw that Walsh had also been by. (He also confirmed the name of the current owner as Marvin. The ladies there briefly debated whether his name was Marvin or Melvin, before concluding that it didn't really matter.) Anyway, even though I didn't know, then, that Walsh had visited, I reminded myself that I'm a guest, and a privileged one who uses advertising dollars from a website to fund my trips, and repay my readers with a Twitter check-in from a smartphone letting them know where I am. If I am a guest in somebody's place of business, I should always be respectful, and when I write about my visit, whether I'm visiting a low-income area of Memphis or a Chinese-owned kabob place in Doraville that serves ox penis on a stick, I need to not be that tour bus operator showin' off the "poor" and the "ethnic" to an audience of reasonably upscale suburbanites with a large entertainment budget. Walsh's experiences on the Delta are the strongest reminder of my responsibilities that I have read so far.

The other part of the book that I found tremendously important details the changing realities of the restaurant trade, and how many restaurant owners, cutting costs, have moved away from outdoor pits and into indoor burners, using electricity and gas and maybe just a chip or two of wood to do the job. I have done a very poor job getting these details for our work. I've done all right once in a while. I'm quite happy with the few minutes that I spent with Phil Beaubian at Hickory Pig in Gainesville, Georgia learning about his awesome outdoor pit, where he smokes "with hickory and oxygen," emphasizing the particular route that the heat takes up a U-bend to smoke his pork, and there have been many other instances of enjoying the details and the fine print about how my food was prepared. But I've been hasty and I've been in a hurry before, and I've left places with scattered words and notes and didn't really learn anything. I must try harder.

I've rambled enough. I'm in Walsh's debt for reminding me about elements where I can always improve. Were it not for the black hole in the book's center, I'd call it remarkable and insist that everybody in this hobby needs to read it and learn and work at doing a little better. But honestly, and haughtily, Walsh is also in this hobby and, where Georgia is concerned, he needs to do a little better, too. Very strongly recommended for all us food bloggers, but recommended with an eyebrow raised and maybe a lip silently bit.

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