Oink if you love BBQ

Great quotes rose like blue smoke during the Southern Foodways Alliance 15th annual symposium recently, which focused on barbecue in all it’s glory. I thought I’d randomly share some of what I gleaned from my notes, but to hear the full real things – including novelist Monique Truong’s lovely tribute to Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, N.C. and North Carolina writer Randall Kenan’s great essay – visit here for podcasts.

“Industrial food production has been wildly successful in making copious quantities of food very cheaply. But in the last 10 to 20 years, sophisticated consumers have focused on the unintended consequences… The expenses are reapportioned. Food is cheap in the shopping cart, but the expense is borne on the backs of animals, the air and water.” – Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, an industry leader in sustainable livestock farming, speaking during the panel “The Politics of Protein and Tomatoes.”

“Consumers are stupid.” – Comment during Q&A after the panel.

“Consumers aren’t stupid, they’re struggling.” – Me, when the previous statement ticked me off.

“Pigs domesticated themselves. If you need meat in a hurry, pig is for you…Pigs can’t be driven and could be fed on garbage. It gave (poor people) meat outside the economy. Pigs gave them freedom.” – Mark Essig, author of the forthcoming “Pig: A Nose-to-Tail History of Civilization,” in a talk on the history of the pig. He also pointed out that we now have fewer farms but many more pigs.

“I AM the pitmaster!” – Helen Turner, proprietor of Helen’s BBQ in Brownsville, Tenn., in an oral history film about her. She received the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award. Folks are often surprised to see a woman at the helm of the pit.

“The south of Mexico is coming to the south of the United States…with southern Mexico barbecue. Raleigh is the Ellis Island for Mexico. Types of (southern Mexico) barbecue there that are impossible for me to find in southern California…There’s a shared love of fiddle music….(Southern Mexico) is sort of the Mexican version of Appalachia.” – Gustavo Arellano, editor of the Orange County Weekly in California and author of “Ask A Mexican.”

“I’m going to have to get me a second Spanx,” – comment reportedly heard on the bus after Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen’s luscious all-vegetable lunch.

“America hates an eyeball. We don’t like our food looking back at us.” – Alton Brown, author of the “Good Eats” series of books and TV personality, speaking on “The Science of Whole Hog Cookery.”



Everything old is new again

barbecue from skylight inn in ayden, just chopped

As The Hub and I rolled from Ayden, N.C. toward New Bern on the Southern Foodways Alliance High on the Hog Carolina Field Trip, we talked about how foodies didn’t invent “eat local” or heirloom foods. People who care about their food have been eating local and looking for the best for years. The whole weekend illustrated that fact.

In Ayden, we feasted on barbecue from the Skylight Inn – the place with the replica of the capitol dome on top – and sublime sides (plus barbecued chicken)  from Bum’s Restaurant: mashed rutabagas, sweet potato muffins and collards. Bum’s collards were so good, even The Hub liked them. Ate them all. I haven’t been able to get the man to willingly  touch a collard in 30 years. The restaurant grows the cabbage collards it cooks, right at the place. Why? Because the owners couldn’t find collards good enough in the store. They save the collard seeds to plant every year. Been

bill smith and his sisters and nieces serve honeysuckle sorbet

doing it since they opened in 1963.

Sam and Jeff Jones of the Skylight, which has been in business since the 1940s ,  bemoaned the new world of leaner pigs. “Fatter hogs make better barbecue,” Jeff said. So they’re looking for heritage breeds that will keep the barbecue tasting like it should, like the old times. “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit,” Sam said, flatly.

“This is just what everybody was raised up on,” said Larry Dennis of Bum’s.

Same thing with the crab stew and fish muddle that night, both traditional eastern dishes. It’s right out of the water, and you do something good with it. Bill Smith of Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner, who was raised in eastern North Carolina, prepared the crab stew: crabmeat and a whole crab in a gravy-like liquid, all of which is served over a slice of white bread to soak up the juices. Sam McGann of The Blue Point in Duck made the fish muddle. It’s a thick, stew-like blend of

barbecue, fried chicken and sides from grady's barbecue, at grainger stadium

whatever fish is fresh. Ours had snapper and rockfish, and a huge shrimp on top.

Our lunch at the acclaimed Chef and the Farmer in Kinston spoke the same language, just with a different accent. Thankfully for our pork-soaked systems, chef Vivian Howard had decided to go veggie…mostly: watermelon with feta-poblano vinaigrette, fried whole okra with ranch ice cream, ears of corn with ginger-bacon butter, Cherokee Purple tomato sandwich with smoked corn mayonnaise, a small pattypan squash stuffed with a Sea Island Purple Cape bean salad, and buttermilk sorbets with three different toppings (blackberry, peach and what seemed to me strawberry-rhubarb). I do not generally hold with fancifying the classic tomato sandwich, but the mayo accented with tomato without competing with it, which is usually my problem with “gourmet” tomato sandwiches.

The lunch was sublime. But so were the other meals. They all had the same aspirations, whether they were served on Formica counters or sleekly modern tabletops: To find the best flavors and prepare them in the best ways.

Postcards from the field trip:

– Dessert for breakfast: Pig picking cake, coconut cream pie, chocolate pie, peach cobbler with blackberry sorbet, banana pudding and fig cake with buttermilk ice cream. This all before Chapel Hill author Sheri Castle’s talk on desserts for Southern pig pickings. They need to feed a lot and are sweet because Southerners like sweets, Castle said, and the sweet balances the spicy barbecue. Banana pudding became a Southern classic because the South’s ports attracted ships from the tropics, and there’s no season to bananas. Pig picking cake is a, well, more recent development. “I can assure you that no actual food was harmed in the making of this cake,” Castle quipped. The classic cake is made from yellow cake mix, pudding mix, canned mandarin oranges and pineapple, and Cool Whip.

– Dessert after the crab stew and fish muddle was a lemon pie with a crust made from saltine crackers and butter. Smith said people used to think “if you ate dessert after seafood, you’d die. Unless it was lemon. My mother still thinks that.” He was kind enough to bring his signature honeysuckle sorbet from Crook’s as well.

– Johanna Kramer of Durham (@durhamfoodie to Twitterites) is obsessed with corn. Lock up your ears.

– In his talk on sauces, Raleigh author Fred Thompson confessed to affection for both eastern and western barbecue sauces. A brave man, he.

– Having kegs of Mother Earth Brewing beer at home plate, first base and third base did not improve my softball abilities.

See a slideshow of photos from the field trip on YouTube here.

Headed South

The pit was dug, the fire department appeased, a row of old theater seats set up for the all-night pitmasters, the wood burned down to perfumed embers. All that remained on the night before the final feast of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual  symposium was to add the future centerpieces of the meal: Cow heads. Pit-cooked Barbacoa de Cabeza, if it sounds better to you.

The leap from Mexican barbacoa to the South’s beloved barbecue is but a small one, and that was the point of the Oxford, Ms. event. The symposium, “The Global South,” showed once again that the South is not an easily characterized mass of fried chicken and pecan pie. As a talk by Tom Hanchett, historian of the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C., put it in his talk, we’re more of a salad bowl than a melting pot. Vietnamese fishermen in Louisiana, Chinese grocers in Arkansas, Southern food embraces it all while allowing each to keep their own identities.

But what y’all really want to know is: What did the beef taste like? (No brains, just lovely cheek meat.) It was the smoothest, most tender beef I’ve ever tasted. The shreds sat on top of corn tortillas with a drizzle of crema and an avocado-tomatillo sauce. It was so good, I almost didn’t mind missing the tequila tasting (the line was too long), but considering my past history with the beverage, maybe that was good. There were lighted candles on the tables.

During the weekend, I also traveled culinarily to Florida with lunch by Miami chef Michelle Bernstein, a one-woman salad bowl herself who blends Argentinian and Jewish ancestry. Her lunch menu ranged from fried chicken to Shrimp and Sweet Potato Ceviche, something I think of as being very Miami but with the curve ball of the Southern spud.

Better BBQ through technology

Good barbecue requires all-night tending, a secret stash of wood and an old pitmaster who would chew off his own leg rather than reveal his secrets, right? Not when you break out the geeks. In IEEE Spectrum, a technology magazine, the entertaining Geek Life column details scientific efforts to build a better barbecue pit. A Texas engineer has patented an “inverted flame firebox” cooker that places the flame above the meat and, he says, prevents blackening.

But the geek barbecue prize goes to an IT guy who hooked up a conventional charcoal smoker to the same kind of system that electric utilities use to manage power plants and transmission lines. He wired a laptop to a PC fan that sits inside the smoker, which allows him to automatically control the temperature. No staying up all night during barbecue contests for this guy. Read the article here.

My beloved geeky husband alerted me to this article, although it’s looking like this site needs to be on my regular reading list. It reminds me of the time he and another techy friend plotted a temperature graph (at regular five-minute intervals, as I recall) of our turkey fryer. I’m still not sure why.

Food news roundup

I learned today that Turkish cooks make baklava in a rolled-up form. However you slice – or curl or mold –  it, it’s still honey-drenched goodness. That and more is in an occasional series on ethnic cooks in the Triangle in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) food section. The story and recipe are here.

Memphis In May is the Daytona 500 of barbecue contests. If you win there, you are king of ‘cue. A Charlotte man was part of a team that won first place for chicken – and it was the first time he’d entered any cooking contest. Read about him in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer here.

There are jelly-filled doughnuts, then there are the pillow-like Berliners that Durham, N.C. bakery Guglhupf produces. The Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.) actually has the bakery’s recipe here.

“Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy?” Well, Emily Spaugh of Winston-Salem, N.C. can, and won a national prize for it. She’s just 18, and carrying on a family tradition. Read more in the Winston-Salem Journal, here.

And I thought we loved pig in North Carolina: A fight broke out at a pig cook-off in Portland, Ore. Police were called. It was all over the birthplace of the winning porker. Read about the squealing brawl in The Oregonian, here.

Utah isn’t a hotbed of craft beers, but a new brewery is opening in Salt Lake City that will focus on “high gravity” beers – that’s beers with a lot of alcohol. Find out how that happened in the Salt Lake Tribune, here.