You should order this book, whether you like barbecue or not. About much more than barbecue, it’s about culture and change and homogenization and human idiosyncrasies. And it’s a truly wonderful read, with an oh so rare mixture of scholarship and wit.
The Godfather, of course, is John Shelton Reed, distinguished scholar and Scott Griffin’s favorite professor at Chapel Hill; co-author of the seminal work on North Carolina barbecue, Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue; a Colonel in the South Carolina Unorganized Militia; and Co-Founder of the Campaign for Real Barbecue.
John Shelton Reed is a bundle of paradoxes. He’s a social scientist, but a fine stylist and a thoroughly entertaining writer. I actually laughed out loud while reading the book, something I only do with P.G. Wodehouse. It helps that Reed focuses on the South, where eccentricities thrive, metaphors proliferate, and where a sense of … occasional mischief is endemic. And nothing heightens the South’s quirks, or transcends racial boundaries, more than barbecue. His chapter on the Memphis in May competition is a hilarious picture of lawyers, among others, not just abandoning dignity but crushing it under the wheels of their chariots.
At the same time, Reed is a serious scholar who writes thoughtfully about the effects of change while using barbecue as a fulcrum. Barbecue was born as a group food, with whole hogs or other large animals cooked over coals for large celebrations, such as holidays and campaign rallies, and that survives in some places, such as here. Barbecue then moved to temporary stands and to brick and mortar restaurants, with locally favored meats — pork in the Southeast, beef in Texas, etc. — cooked over wood coals by individual owners, and sold at affordable prices to people of all income levels and walks of life and, since the Civil Rights Act, all races. Next, barbecue chains erupted with corporate rather than individual owners untied to local meats and methods: the “International House of Barbecue” in Reed’s phrase. Another branch has been “craft” or “haute” barbecue, with specialty meats (think Wagyu and Duroc) cooked by trained chefs using traditional methods, with wood.
Reed notes two important effects. The first is the pressure the chains put on small, locally owned places. Much as other invasive species, the chains tend to overwhelm the environment and drive out native species; and the chains can price out low income people and confine social interaction. The craft places charge high prices and serve a separate, more affluent market, but there’s a loss there in terms of the end of mixing of rich and poor at adjacent tables, talking sports and local issues — a sad loss in our increasingly Balkanized society. And as Reed describes in a chapter on “Hincty” barbecue, where “elevated” barbecue veers into preciousness, much as high end “soul food” places used to strew raspberries on dishes at random. This tendency reached its nadir at the National Museum of African American History cafeteria. “That’s not the way Mama fixed it,” as one visitor said.
Although his insights are penetrating, Reed wears his scholarship oh, so lightly. Who else, in describing the invasion of barbecue chains replacing local barbecue places, would think of paraphrasing the opening sentence of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, “Man is born free but he is everywhere in chains,” and do it in such a gracious, self deprecating manner.
Another paradox: Reed writes with understanding and compassion despite an education in Cambridge and Manhattan, not the best springboards for understanding the lands beyond the Hudson. A favorite example: I worked a case with another Justice attorney from Hopkinsville in Christian County, Kentucky, who’d gone to law school at Harvard. A group of students approached him and said, “We saw the word “Christian” on your license plate.” He blandly explained, “Kentucky makes everyone put their religious affiliation on the tags — Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, or whatever.” The group bustled off, excitedly planning a lawsuit until they met someone who at some point in her life had ventured south or west of the Newark Airport. Bless their hearts. Reed unfailingly writes about people with sympathy and understanding, if occasionally with a touch of exasperation.
The book itself is a collection of previously published articles, essays, and particularly fun and well-crafted book reviews. He’s done a fine job editing and arranging the articles so that it flows. You can read it straight through or dip in and out. You’ll probably want to re-read many of the pieces. I enjoyed a chapter on barbecue and politics, and the missteps of candidates who get on the wrong side of the barbecue issue. The article, alas, was published before the latest outrage. Search “Cal Cunningham barbecue” for details. Some people.
You should get a copy of On Barbecue. Go to your local bookstore or, better, the Blytheville Book Company, and order it. In a pinch, order it on Amazon, but get a copy. You’ll learn lot and laugh a lot.
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