For Chatham’s Reed, barbecue is more than a good-tasting passion

Posted 2/15/19

John Shelton Reed is more than simply an expert on “the South” and the author or editor of nearly 20 books on the subject — he’s an avowed lover of barbecue and has spent much of his …

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For Chatham’s Reed, barbecue is more than a good-tasting passion

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John Shelton Reed is more than simply an expert on “the South” and the author or editor of nearly 20 books on the subject — he’s an avowed lover of barbecue and has spent much of his post-academic career studying the art of fine slow-roasted pork. This week, we speak to Reed about the appeal of barbecue, how North Carolina barbecue stacks up against that made elsewhere and the notion of “true ‘cue.”

What’s the appeal of barbecue for you?

Well, for starters, of course, it tastes good. At least if it’s cooked right.

For the record, I grew up in east Tennessee, which doesn’t really have a barbecue tradition. But I was introduced to North Carolina barbecue about 1960, at Turnage’s in Durham, when I visited my girlfriend, who was at Duke, and I liked it from the very first bite. (Kind of like cigarettes, but I had to give those up.) I reckon I’ve eaten three or four hundred pounds of it since then.

There’s more, though. Barbecue has a long and complex and fascinating history, and it’s tied up with political campaigns, church homecomings, drive-in restaurants, harvest celebrations, the Fourth of July...all sorts of things. It’s good to eat and fun to study.

You spent most of your career at UNC studying and writing about the South more generally. How did you come to focus on barbecue?

Some people can write about the South without mentioning barbecue, but I’m not one of them. Over the years I wrote about it occasionally: I was a judge at the Memphis in May competition and I wrote about that. I reviewed a couple of books about it. The Southern Foodways Alliance asked me to talk about it at one of their meetings. But I only got serious after I retired, especially when my wife and I agreed to write a book for the UNC Press called “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.” That was such fun that since it was published I haven’t written about much else. (The tax deductions are great, too.)

My latest is a cookbook in the UNC Press “Savor the South” series. The world didn’t need another barbecue cookbook, but that series needed one.

As you’ve traveled around the region and the country, how does North Carolina’s barbecue compare to local barbecue elsewhere?

We North Carolinians argue endlessly about Eastern versus Piedmont barbecue, but the two are so much alike that we can talk about “North Carolina barbecue” compared to what they serve in Texas, Memphis or Kansas City. My buddy Jim says we ought to put “The Vinegar State” on our license plates.

I’ve eaten just about everybody’s barbecue, and I like almost any kind in its native habitat: brisket in Texas, ribs in Memphis, stuff with thick red sauce on it in Kansas City, even mustard-sauced pork in South Carolina, and mayonnaise-sauced chicken in Alabama. It’s when they crop up as invasive species — like brisket in North Carolina — that I get annoyed, because one of the things I like about barbecue is its link to place.

I said I like almost any kind of barbecue. The one exception may be the mutton that they cook in Owensboro, Kentucky. I’m still thinking about that.

A French journalist asked me recently where I’d send a visiting tourist to eat American barbecue, if I had to pick one place. That’s an interesting question, and a different one from whose I like best. I had to suggest two places. First, the vinegar- and pepper-sauced whole hog barbecue at any of several places in the Carolinas (the Skylight Inn in Ayden is a classic). This is what barbecue was everywhere in the US until the late 1800s. At the other end, this hypothetical French visitor might try somewhere in Kansas City — let’s say Joe’s Kansas City — which may be the shape of things to come. I usually say “International House of Barbecue” disparagingly, to denote places that cook all kinds of meats and serve them with an array of sauces. Usually that’s undermining some local barbecue tradition. But in Kansas City, that is the local barbecue tradition, and Joe’s does it as well as it can be done.

You’re involved with something called the Campaign for Real Barbecue. What is that all about?

The simplest answer is to refer your readers to our website, TrueCue.org. The Campaign was conceived when I was talking one day with Dan Levine, a Chapel Hill boy and an inspired barbecue blogger, and we shared our dismay that so many North Carolina barbecue places have stopped cooking with wood and switched entirely to gas or electricity. We agreed that barbecue is not just any slow-roasted pork: It needs smoke from a hardwood fire or coals. The principal purpose of the Campaign is to recognize and to encourage folks who do it the old way — do it right.

We seem to have identified a real problem, and not just in North Carolina. We have branches now in South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky, and we’re about to get one in Virginia. (Texas doesn’t need us: a Texan who cooked meat with gas and called it barbecue would be shot, or at least mocked. I say, good for Texas.)

Another thing Dan and I are doing is we’re trying to get the state to designate the last Monday in February as “Wilmington Barbecue Day.” In 1766 the Royal Governor of North Carolina, William Tryon, tried to win the good will of the New Hanover militia by treating them to a barbecue, but the locals, upset about the Stamp Act, threw the barbecued ox in the river and poured out the beer. This was a full seven years before the Boston Tea Party, which gets all the publicity.

What is the “True ‘Cue Pledge”?

Visitors to TrueCue.org are invited to sign a pledge that they will keep the True ‘Cue faith and promote the cause — by patronizing places that cook with wood, for instance, especially celebrating those that cook only with wood, and by not eating meat cooked entirely with gas or electricity, even if it’s called barbecue, “except when courtesy requires it” (we are a Southern organization, after all). I invite your readers to have a look at our website and to sign up, if they agree with us. The pledge:

• I will proclaim the difference between Real Barbecue and faux ‘cue, the former being sublime and the latter merely roasted meat.

• I will remember and remind others that the making of Real Barbecue requires taste, tradition, and a sense of place.

• I will patronize purveyors of Real Barbecue, slow-cooked with smoke from wood or wood coals, and I will encourage others to do the same.

• I will especially seek out and celebrate those old-school pitmasters who cook solely with wood or wood coals.

• I will keep the Faith. I will not eat meat cooked only with gas or electricity and mislabeled “barbecue,” except when courtesy requires it.

• If compelled by circumstance to eat at an establishment serving such faux ‘cue, I will politely call attention to the lack of holy smoke by issuing an online review, letter to the editor, tweet, telegram, Facebook status update, smoke signal, or other ancient or modern form of communication.

• I will educate friends and strangers alike about TrueCue.org, and tell them about the Campaign for Real Barbecue.

• Even in the face of ignorance, indifference, and bland meat, I will not despair, confident that Real Barbecue shall not perish from the earth.

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