Food & Drink

NC pitmasters dispute portrayal in new barbecue book

Pitmaster Ed Mitchell takes issue with his portrayal in historian Rien Fertel’s new whole hog barbecue book.
Pitmaster Ed Mitchell takes issue with his portrayal in historian Rien Fertel’s new whole hog barbecue book. Corey Lowenstein

There are no recipes in Rien Fertel’s new barbecue book.

Sure, the New Orleans author offhandedly mentions the four non-pork elements to the storied barbecue at the Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, but salt, pepper, apple cider vinegar and Texas Pete are hardly trade secrets. Rather, “The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog” is a book about people – pitmasters who lose sleep, damage their health and occasionally even land culinary fame for their skill with fire and pig.

“I would show up early when they showed up at work. I would sit by the fire all night. I got kicked out of one (restaurant) for showing up at the wrong time. I went to their churches. I saw one of them preach,” Fertel says. “For a food book, there’s not a whole lot of food in it, and that’s how I wanted it to be. This is really about people.”

Fertel grew up in an area with no barbecue tradition. The Lafayette, La., native was raised in the hub of Cajun country, as he writes – a culture that values boudin sausages, sure, but has little use for even a barbecue chain. Fertel did his first Southern Foodways Alliance oral histories with Memphis-area pitmasters back in 2008, and soon found his barbecue of choice in rural west Tennessee. Still, he kept traveling, through Tennessee, both Carolinas and Mississippi, making it as far north as Brooklyn seeking the people obsessed with two basic elements – fire and whole hog.

Many North Carolina pitmasters and restaurateurs are featured prominently in the book, including Skylight Inn and Bum’s Restaurant, both in Ayden and Grady’s Barbecue in Dudley. Others take exception with how they’re portrayed in “The One True Barbecue.”

“As a historian, how could he write about me but have never interviewed me?” asks Ed Mitchell, the Wilson native and celebrated pitmaster. “I wouldn’t recognize him if he walked in here.”

With spots on documentaries and reality TV and regular appearances at major barbecue competitions, Mitchell is an Eastern North Carolina barbecue celebrity with a significant local footprint, too; he was founding partner of Raleigh’s The Pit, with which he split ways in 2011, and owner of the short-lived Ed Mitchell’s Que in Durham.

“Someone who read an advance copy of the book said he’s gonna kill me,” Fertel confesses. “I think he’s a genius, but one cursed with problems that geniuses have. He’s too complicated for his own good.”

Fertel counters that he did interview Mitchell at a Southern Foodways Alliance event in 2012 and learned other details from other articles about him. His idea was to write a rounded portrait of Mitchell. He presents a rocky picture, and Mitchell comes across as an image-crafting marketing pro and a barbecue rogue who cooks his hogs hot and fast. Fertel compares the way Mitchell presents himself, with his bushy white beard and well-worn overalls, as the sort of hyper-Southern gimmick one would find in a Cracker Barrel dining room. It’s reckless, intrusive writing, Mitchell’s son Ryan says: he remembers his grandfather dying of cancer, and notes that Fertel points to that death as the genesis of the “myth of Ed Mitchell.”

“I’m nothing. I’m not the focusing point. It’s about who we are as North Carolinians,” says Mitchell, who explains that his outfit is homage to the tradition of barbecue and to the people who make it.

Unlike in many food books, Fertel wanted to get into the history of barbecue, particularly its social history. Sitting behind Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro he had a crisis of conscience.

“I specifically did not interview Wilber Shirley, because my boss had done one a year or two ago,” Fertel says, mentioning the restaurant’s namesake and owner. “I decided I wanted to see what was going on in the back. I saw Pop – Pop was getting ready for work.”

If you’ve driven by Wilber’s on Highway 70, you’ve likely seen evidence of Keith “Pop” Ward’s handiwork in the plume of smoke rising behind the restaurant. Fertel immediately admired him and enjoyed the time they spent together, watching the fire overnight while the next day’s barbecue slowly cooked.

What struck Fertel, though, was what he perceived to be the division of labor at Wilber’s: “Wilber Shirley and the whole front of the house staff at his restaurant, minus a busboy, are white,” he writes in “The One True Barbecue.” “Pop and the rest of the back house staff, encompassing the kitchen and the pit, are black.”

Ward, he continues, isn’t paid extra for staying overnight to oversee the pit. It was a complicated night, Fertel says, and so has been every other time he’s seen Ward. This form of labor seemed like exploitation to him, but he also wondered about his own role as an out-of-state food writer, dropping in to look over the pitmaster’s shoulder. Was he merely a dilettante and an interloper?

Shirley disagrees with Fertel’s view. “That’s completely untrue. There are people in the kitchen: they’re white, they’re black. We hire anyone who comes along. We have a black waitress and a black person behind the takeout counter.”

Restaurants simply can’t pick and choose their staff, Shirley says. Particularly with all the other restaurants in Goldsboro, he says, he simply hires the people who can and want to work. Shirley recalls one long-time employee who had to retire and go on Social Security, saying he continued to pay her salary until she died – and she was African-American. “It certainly has nothing to do with race,” Shirley reiterates.

Barbecue is a polarizing topic. Yet Fertel remains drawn to whole hog barbecue and the people who make it. What drew him back was food, curiosity and fellowship – even with people like Mitchell, who don’t much care for Fertel’s approach.

“I can’t wait to see him,” Fertel says.

Reach Hill at corbiehill@gmail.com

Meet the Author

Author Rien Fertel will read from his new book, “The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog,” at three Triangle bookstores. There will be barbecue samples served at each event, thanks to Durham’s Picnic restaurant.

▪ 7 p.m. May 24, Flyleaf Books, 752 MLK Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill, flyleafbooks.com

▪ 7 p.m. May 27, Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham, regulatorbookshop.com

▪ 11 a.m. May 28, McIntyre’s Books, 220 Market St., Pittsboro (Fearrington Village), fearrington.com/village-shops/mcintyres-books/

▪ Noon-2 p.m. May 29, Southern Season, 201 S. Estes Drive, Chapel Hill. http://www.southernseason.com/events/single/?location=chapel-hill&type=store&id=21905

▪ 4-6 p.m. May 29, Southern Season at Cameron Village, Raleigh. http://www.southernseason.com/events/single/?location=raleigh&type=store&id=21904

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