The transformation of barbecue over the past 15 years from Southern workingman’s mainstay to national culinary darling has led to a sophistication not only at the grill but in the publishing house. Books related to the subject have gone from broad in scope to increasingly niche-y.
Last year’s “Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto” by Austin celebrity pitmaster Aaron Franklin and Jordan Mackay (Ten Speed Press) was as niche as it gets. There was only a small handful of recipes in its 224 pages. The rest of the book was an exhaustive meditation on method. It was hailed as a tour de force and sold like Franklin’s wait-in-line-for-five-hours-for-it brisket.
There is no book of that stature this year, but there are several very good books, and, in their niche-ness, they represent the evolution of the cuisine.
“The One True Barbecue,” by Rien Fertel (Touchstone) is not a quest to find the best joints in America (a typical journey) or to understand the subculture that is barbecue, but an exploration into a sub-subculture: the imperiled tradition of all-wood whole-hog pit cookery. Fertel takes us on a sentimental journey into smoke-fogged pit houses to celebrate renowned pitmasters such as Rodney Scott of South Carolina and Sam Jones of North Carolina, and unsung ones such as Ricky Parker of Tennessee. Along the way, he reveals some deep fissures of class and race in American life.
Fertel’s vivid writing and love for his subject are engaging. “This is the magic hour,” he writes at one point, “when spice meets meat, ambrosia melds with nectar — when smoked and chopped pork becomes barbecue, when barbecue transcends its own simplicity and becomes simply beautiful.” You will probably get hungry as you turn the pages, but there are no recipes. Have a smoked-pork sandwich handy as you read.
Robb Walsh took a similar journey some 15 years ago, in Texas only, for his seminal 2002 book, “Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook.” Its eponymous update (Chronicle Books) includes information about several pitmasters, including Franklin, who weren’t in business when Walsh wrote the first book and who, with their use of top-graded meats and their “aerodynamic” approach to smoking, personify the massive changes that have happened in recent years.
Among the book’s 100 recipes are 32 new ones, including one by cook-off competitor Robert Sierra, who not only makes a complicated marinade for his brisket but also injects it into the USDA prime meat with a syringe. In Walsh’s first book, the brisket recipes called for the lowest grade, select, and there were no injections. Walsh, admirably, passes no judgment. He does, however, include a new chapter on community barbecue, perhaps the ur-barbecue of neighbors gathering for social or fundraising events to slow-smoke some meat, make some sides and trade some gossip. Also new is the addition of several specific barbecue trails, from urban adventuring to rural pilgrimaging. The original edition was valuable and groundbreaking. This updated version is even better.
The science behind cooking has been popular in the larger culinary culture for years, but it is just gaining traction in barbecue circles. The leading smoky-science writer is a guy who calls himself Meathead. He is anything but. A former wine critic for The Post with an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicagoan (whose name is Craig Goldwyn) began writing about barbecue several years ago on his blog, AmazingRibs.com. The blog has grown to become a one-stop shop of history, lore, recipes, advice and product reviews. It led to a book, “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
The 384-page tome (full disclosure: I wrote a positive blurb for the book) is foundational in understanding how to make barbecue. Goldwyn employs a former chief technical advisor at Bell Labs named Greg Blonder to run experiments on everything from soaking wood chips (don’t) to resting meat (don’t) to bringing meat to room temp before smoking (don’t). The science results in the book’s signature “myth busting” segments.
Don’t be scared of the science. Goldwyn writes plainly and with humor. He explains the differences between conduction, convection and radiant heat, for example, by comparing each to how a lover’s body is positioned relative to yours. (You have to read it.) Nor is the book dense with text. Lots of photos and illustrations break up the words, which themselves are broken into digestible tidbits. The book includes 118 recipes, ranging from the traditional (pulled pork) to the elegant (smoked salmon mousse canapes) to the exotic (Chocolate Chili Barbecue Sauce). Sometimes provocative (Don’t rest meats? Really?) but always interesting, “Meathead,” with its exacting experimentation, gives novices and pros alike a lot of information to up their game.
One guy not generally associated with niche writing is barbecue master Steven Raichlen, author of such gigantic best-sellers as “Barbecue! Bible.” With “Project Smoke” (Workman), he goes deep into the most elemental aspect of what makes barbecue barbecue. He may not employ scientists, but Raichlen’s comprehensive approach to exploring the mysteries of outdoor cooking remains peerless. “Project Smoke” is a tour de force of niche cookbook writing.
His “Ten Commandments of Smoke” offers useful advice (“lower heat produces more smoke; higher heat produces less smoke”). His writing is straightforward, whether about how to start a fire or what wood to use to achieve a desired flavor. He smokes everything, from tofu to meatballs, with everything: kamado, bullet, offset, kettle, you name it. And he shows you how, with illustrative photos and clear prose. Raichlen even provides directions on how to infuse smoke into a cocktail. Make one on a hot summer night to go with his smoked planked Camembert with jalapeños and pepper jelly.
As a woman in the male-dominated barbecue cook-off world, competitor Danielle Bennett, who goes by the name Diva Q, inhabits a niche within a niche. The 195 recipes in her “Diva Q’s Barbecue” (Appetite by Random House) include several from her competition cooking, including the pulled pork recipe that took first place in the prestigious Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue. Asian Marinated Korean Ribs, while not from the circuit, makes for an easy and delicious summer dinner.
The most famous circuit competitor is certainly Myron Mixon. The brash Georgian who calls himself the “winningest man in barbecue” is the star of the reality TV show “BBQ Pitmasters.” The 50 recipes in “Myron Mixon’s BBQ Rules: The Old-School Guide to Smoking Meat” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) are aimed at the backyard cook. The handsome, clean design and specific instructions for processes from building fires to cooking whole hog make this perhaps Mixon’s most user-friendly book.
There is nothing niche about John Shelton Reed’s “Barbecue” (The University of North Carolina Press), from the publisher’s “Savor the South” line, but Reed’s graceful and witty writing makes it a delight to read. (Full disclosure: I’m included in the acknowledgements.) Reed is co-author of one of the great niche barbecue books, “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue,” but this concise pan-regional overview of the history and meaning of barbecue should be required reading for anyone interested in American-style smoked meats. It includes 51 recipes, all of them region-specific, from North Alabama White Sauce to St. Louis Hog Snoots. The book proves that, in the right hands, the big picture is still something to celebrate.
Shahin is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. He will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.