By Jill Warren Lucas
Six years after John Shelton Reed wrote the definitive book on North Carolina barbecue, he’s been asked to produce an encore.
“I’m not sure the world needs another book on barbecue, but UNC Press wants to include barbecue in its series on Southern food, so I’m happy to do it,” said Shelton, author of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue (UNC Press, 2008). He wrote the critically acclaimed volume with his wife, Dale Volberg Reed, and colleague William McKinney.
The as-yet untitled follow-up book probably won’t be published until 2014, but Reed said he’s already decided on most of the side dishes and is making plans to test several new recipes in his new toy.
A few months ago, Reed recalled during a call from his Chapel Hill home, he attended a barbecue at Craig Rogers’ Border Springs Farms in Virginia, which is renowned for its lamb. Reed was duly impressed with the quality of the meat, but riding home all he could think about was Rogers’ impressive Viking cooker.
“I’ve got to admit, I coveted it,” Reed said with a laugh. “I came home and checked on eBay, where I found one for half price. I could hardly believe it.”
The impulse purchase of this 455-pound shrine to smoking might get some people in hot water, but Reed is fortunate to have a spouse who is equally crazy about traditional barbecue.
“I am lucky, and we love to cook for friends,” he said. “Of course, I had to put in a pad for it to sit on, so it turned out to be pretty expensive after all, but it works like a charm. Better than I deserve.”
If anyone deserves a state-of-the-art smoker, surely it’s the man who has dedicated much of his professional career to documenting and promoting the labor-intensive efforts of authentic pit masters.
Reed has unabashed admiration for those who continue to cook barbecue the traditional way: low and slow with plenty of wood smoke. He’s likewise dismissive of old stalwarts who have quit cooking with wood, some of whom appear to have committed the ultimate barbecue crime of trying to replace hard-earned flavor with Liquid Smoke.
He considers Keith Allen of Allen & Son in Chapel Hill a prime example of a purist who provides diners with a true Southern barbecue experience.
“He gets up and starts cooking at 3:30 every morning so he can feed people lunch,” Reed said. “There aren’t many left that still do that because it’s very hard work.”
Reed gets a bit irritated at those who balk at paying a fair price that reflects both the hours of labor and cost of quality meat. At Wilber’s in Goldsboro, he said, “You can get a barbecue sandwich that cooked all night long and costs no more than a Big Mac. It’s crazy that they have to compete with guys who use a set-it-and-forget-it cooking method. People have got to charge right or they’ll go out of business.
“There I go. Up on my soap box,” he added with a wry chuckle. “I just hate the idea of losing the old classics. There’s a great working-class tradition that is at risk.”
Much like the recipes in Holy Smoke!, Reed’s next book will feature dishes perfected by barbecue greats but focus primarily on traditions that make Southern barbecue unique from one region to the next. He looks forward to cooking some meats he’s never smoked before, especially goat, but draws a clear line that will not be crossed. For example, to be truly inclusive, he’ll include a recipe from a reliable Missouri colleague for barbecued pig snout – but he has no desire to try it.
“I understand it comes out looking something like a dog’s chew toy and doesn’t taste much better,” he said. “Anything that needs to be hidden under a lot of sauce is something I can do without.”
He will apply similar common sense – and a computer spreadsheet – to “construct” a Kansas City barbecue sauce. After all, he has considerable experience consuming the stuff, as well as a vast library of barbecue books.
“I confess: I’ll lay them out and determine what they have in common and what’s just off the wall,” he said. “It won’t be innovative. That’s not the point. I’ll write about what makes something classic, how it evolved and how it’s different from what’s done in other regions.”
Reed is sympathetic to those who righteously believe that Tar Heel barbecue is the best. “In North Carolina, barbecue is kind of like college basketball. Even if you’re not interested in it, you pretend to be.
“If someone asks your preference,” he advised, meaning Eastern vinegar-style or Piedmont tomato-based ‘cue, “you’ve got to have one. It doesn’t entirely matter which, but you’ve got to have a stand.”
Lucas blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.file://localhost/Users/nanciemac/Desktop/allen3.jpg