by Angela Perez
John Shelton Reed, 74, is a highly respected author and scholar of Southern history, sociology and food ways. He taught for over 30 years at UNC-Chapel Hill and helped found the school’s esteemed Center for the Study of the American South. Reed, who lives in Chatham County, is also a leading BBQ scholar (I’m going back and getting my PhD in THAT) and recently released his newest book, the cookbook “Barbecue.
A week or so ago, Reed discussed BBQ in North Carolina in an interview in the Triangle’s Indy Week that brings up insightful points about “orthodoxy” and “authenticity” in preparing and discussing Southern cooking. That dogmatism Reed is referring to is born out of a rampant culinary nostalgia that’s inspiring everything from eager foodies buying Lodge cast iron skillets (local Southern celebrity chef Ashley Christensen promotes Lodge often – I’ll admit I’ve wondered if she has or is angling for an endorsement deal with them or if she just genuinely loves the cookware. Lodge is, in fact, some great cast iron cookware made in Tennessee since 1896. Whatever the case, I’m glad she is using her popularity to promote it.), pop-up homemade pie stands being erected on organic farms (one pie stand I visited in Durham recently had sold out within a couple hours of opening and you couldn’t even park near the stand for all of the Lexus SUVs and Subaru Outbacks that had swarmed onto the farm), and slick, earnest documentaries featuring highly-tattooed guys waxing poetic on the art of pickling.
BBQ in North Carolina, like so many other fiercely loved regional delights, demands authenticity amongst both sporting foodies who didn’t grow up with the food and those die-hard, that’s-how-my-grandmother-made-it Southerners who did indeed grow up with it and want to preach its gospel. (We Southerners love to tell people we grew up eating this and that and the other straight from the river or the garden. I’m highly guilty of always referring to my grandmother’s collard greens and my grandpa’s crow stew or cornmeal-breaded fried flounder. I wonder when crow stew will trend…) Reed tells Indy interviewer Lee Quinn:
The newer generation of barbecue cooks and pitmasters are self-conscious in a way the old barbecue guys weren’t. There is a dogmatism or even fundamentalism in their devotion to cooking over wood coals, pulling the pork, etcetera. There’s a return to orthodoxy that indicates a real respect for these traditions and the regions they represent.
So much media and press attention goes to chefs, restaurants and artisans connecting with the “old ways.” It is now in the hands of the food industry to preach the gospel of localism through food. The question becomes, what’s driving such staid, serious dogmatism in food production and why? From whence springs the all-consuming desire to delve into the murky origins of forgotten food ways? Why is the public trying to connect with where their food comes from like folks could in the “old days” (though, that connection “back then” was born out of necessity, not luxury – these days, it takes some serious bucks to “reconnect”)? And why is the public so in love with those chef and artisan food adventures down the romantic, back-to-our-roots rabbit hole?
There seems to be some deep, biological need driving consumers into the arms of Southern chefs and artisan food producers as we salivate and weep for joy and exclaim: “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you for giving us the real thing!” And we admire, often to the point of sycophantism and slavishness, those people who do the research and the hard work and take all of the business risks to present us with the “real thing.” These chefs, biscuit makers, pork pullers, bakers, butchers, etc. wield the power to dole out one of the most compelling forces in the universe: nostalgia. Let’s take a look at how nostalgia and food connect.
On the negative side, what’s happening is that there is a lot of back-slapping and circle jerking going on in the Triangle just because something is made local and demonstrates a home-grown ethos. I mean, we all hate what mass-production and globalization have done to society, right? These folks focusing on “local” and “sustainable” agricultural are thumbing their noses at such gluttonous economy. My God, family farming can sustain an expensive restaurant so who cares that it might not affordably sustain an entire population? “That’s not my problem,” I mutter as I shovel organic, locally-grown kale into my pie hole.
The fact remains, however, some of those local restaurants and artisans ain’t producing food that’s even all that GOOD. Or they are producing food that is good enough for Raleigh or the Triangle but would never cut it nationally. I hear a lot of my friends in the food industry call certain restaurants and products, “Raleigh-good” and they don’t mean it in a circle jerking kind of way. Yet, for now at least, the public seems to be willing to fling their money at anything that feels authentic.
Nostalgia is a powerful urge and a powerful business. Luckily for us, this homespun brand of a consumerism is bound up in basic human need (to eat) benefits us all – the seller hopefully, makes a living and the consumer ends up with incredible food not mass-produced and made with inferior products that aren’t good for us.
In other words, some of that culinary nostalgia may be driven by our current fears of faceless greedy corporations threatening our health and our planet all in the name of making a profit. Foodies spending their money on “local” and “authentic” food crave and idealize the notion there is love and care, just like when they were children, in the preparation and presentation of the food they are about to put into their bodies. (Though, ironically, for Generation Xers and Baby Boomers, our grandparents and parents were happily serving us new-fangled highly processed foods like Cool Whip and canned peas – pre-packaged food that made their lives so much easier and simpler.)
We love the idea of a business that doesn’t appear to be wholly born out of the desire to make a profit at any cost (even though, let’s be real, these folks do still need to send their kids to college and pay bills and feed the dog). Surely, these committed craftspeople are driven first and foremost by passion and curiosity and eschew the destructive evils of capitalism. I mean, my God, they mortgaged their homes and spent their retirement savings so I could have an heirloom tomato sandwich with homemade pickles on rye bread sourced from the bakery down the street. They spent their kids’ college fund so I can go in an expensive restaurant and sit on a bench that’s made from wood from an old tobacco barn in South Raleigh that was originally built by slaves. I mean, my God, how can you NOT feel good about spending your money on that? (Oh my God, I just realized Sean Brock is the Wendell Berry of restaurant owners. More on that in another, related blog.)
It FEELS good to give these guild masters our money, like we are doing the right thing for our bodies, our taste buds, our local communities and for humanity in general. I know I for one would much rather buy a $6 loaf of bread from a local baker who claims to be using a technique specific to Roman bakers in 600 BC than a $1.99 loaf from the Kroger bread aisle. I just better when I put my hard-earned money into the hands of a real, live small business owner who cares about the who, what, when, where and why of their food production (beyond profit) and usually, hopefully, the food tastes great to boot. And if these chefs and artisans don’t dig into the old food ways, we’re threatened with losing our stories, our history and our origins as it all gets wiped out by giant faceless food conglomerates who have no interest in preserving anything beyond profit margins.
Another driving force behind culinary nostalgia is a deep-rooted need to be part of a tribe, to feel safe in the bosom of a connected community. By asserting and participating in specific, regional food ways like BBQ, you assert a cultural identity and ensure the continuation of your “people” and your way of life. Or as Reed puts it in the Indy article:
The tie to geography, particularly in North Carolina, overlays rivalries between the east and the Piedmont. Differing economies, settlement patterns, plantation systems (or the lack thereof), and differences in the European and African migrations to areas of the state all play a role in these identities. In some ways, arguing about what makes barbecue stands in as a proxy for fighting about other things. The Texas-North Carolina smoked meat rivalry indicates this on a regional level. The reason for the relatively recent bubbling up of these arguments might be due to the increasing homogenization of other aspects of American cultural life. Barbecue—at least good barbecue that pays homage to local traditions—can still stand for a place.
In Northeastern North Carolina, when we insist that pulled pork doused in a vinegar-based sauce is the only “right” way to eat BBQ, we are defining ourselves as a distinct community, one that is united by food dogma. In standing together in the name of vinegar, we are assured we will survive even as those Piedmont hooligans hurl tomato-based BBQ sauce (though, to be accurate, there is still vinegar in the bbq sauces that have tomato in them) at us and threaten to blow up our forts and smash down our walls and run away with our women and children…dissolving the tribe and killing off a simpler, sweeter way of life, even if that way of life doesn’t actually even exist anymore.
And while I strongly encourage you to keep a critical eye on the food and drink that is being presented to us (remember, just because the food or drink was made here or someone won a national award or the News & Observer constantly praises it doesn’t automatically mean it’s all that great), I at the same time believe that biology, history and our taste buds demand that we take these deep dives into all those old Southern food ways. Let’s all eat, drink and be merry as we continue to analyze and dissect what “local” and “authentic” means.
But don’t get too damn merry.
Don’t forget, we still need to talk about race and class in culinary history and local food ways and take a look at who gets access to all of these fancy breads and heirloom this and heritage that and free-range fried chicken. I mean, everyone deserves good food, don’t they? Let’s keep that in mind as we slap each other on the back for getting a write-up in some national magazine – ask WHO is getting to reconnect with where their food comes from. Will it just be middle-class, educated white folks who like to run marathons and sport cool glasses and interesting tattoos who can afford or are willing to pay $11.00 for a pound of house-ground, heritage-hog chorizo and $16 a bowl for artisanal grits and $12 an ounce for sunflower micro greens while they sit in a refurbished cotton mill and sip a $9 craft brew made with local hops? Is this where culinary nostalgia inevitably leads and leaves us? Sweet God have mercy, I hope not.
Ask what the hog can do for you, but what can you do for the hog.