Friday, April 8, 2016

The One True Barbecue

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 The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog (Touchstone, 2016).

Some of you may know that my wife and I have been writing a travel and food blog called Marie, Let's Eat! regularly since 2010. It gets updated a whole lot more frequently than this one, anyway. We don't do "restaurant reviews" in it, we just share stories of our experiences eating in wonderful places, and one thing that I enjoy doing is looking around for other blog posts about the restaurant we've just featured, and maybe send a little traffic in the direction of some blog posts so that our readers may get additional information and see more photos about the place.

In 2014, I visited a really good, and really popular place in Shelby NC called Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, and I think that's when I discovered a great blog called The Barbecue Bus, written by Rien Fertel and illustrated with some downright stunning photography by Denny Culbert. The pictures are such a sore point with me. I have been able to persuade myself that my writing is not awful, and in fact it's occasionally pretty good, but nothing makes me more envious than somebody with better photographic equipment, training, and talent than me. Culbert's photos for their story on Red Bridges led me to read all of the short-lived blog - it covers tours through North Carolina in 2011-2012 - and I found myself triply envious. I wish I could shoot as well as Culbert, I wish I could write as well as Fertel, and I wish somebody'd sponsor me to spend a month or ten on the road doing their jobs.

Fertel's particular passion is whole hog cooking, which is typically associated with eastern North Carolina. As I've come to learn, that doesn't mean "the eastern half of the state," it means the region east of I-95 and north of Fayetteville. It's farmland, chiefly, with a few small cities, a big USAF base, and lots of old one-horse towns. In most of the south, barbecue places will typically smoke pork shoulders, but in this region, the whole hog is used, smoked low and slow, and served with a lightly-seasoned vinegar dip.

It's not specifically limited to this area. Fertel's new book The One True Barbecue - part travelogue and part memoir, very much a first-person narrative - introduced me to some other places and regions where whole hog cooking can still be found, such as Scott's-Parker's Barbecue in Lexington TN. It discusses the curious contradiction of whole hog over wood in an outdoor pit slowly losing out to less expensive ways of cooking, while at the same time younger enthusiasts and entrepreneurs in cities like Asheville NC and Nolensville TN have revived the form and made it trendy.

I like it when a book makes me rethink a position. I had read Fertel's blog post about Grady's BBQ in the middle of nowhere - sort of around Dudley NC - along with Dan Levine's especially rhapsodic story at his blog BBQ Jew, and concluded that I simply must have come on an off day, because the meal that I had here in 2014 was pretty good, but nothing like these fellows described. Here, Fertel goes into even more detail about Grady's technique and history, and the sad reality that the business will not live beyond its owners, who are getting on in years. It breaks my heart that I didn't really love my meal here, since Fertel loves the place so much. I am very hopeful that I can go back one Friday this coming October. My fingers are crossed.

It's just an incredibly well-written book that talks honestly about history and family, poverty and economics, race and difficulty. Fertel spends a lot of time with pitmasters and packs in the detail. There are some great stories here. You will absolutely want to take a barbecue road trip yourself with this book at your side. Even if you can't get to a whole hog place, this book will make for absolutely fine reading at any table that serves pork with any kind of sauce.

He also, sensibly, doesn't give himself the opportunity to piss me off like Robb Walsh did by dismissing Georgia. Nobody in this state seems to cook whole hog, so there's no reason for his travelogue to take him here. Our loss. Highly, highly recommended.

(Clicking the link in the image will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase the book. A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.)