Friday, August 31

Southern Six-Pack

What a scary and bewildering week here in the South.  Hurricane Isaac made landfall on the Alabama/Mississippi/Louisiana gulf coast.  Rains, wind, and rising water in eastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi are wreaking havoc with lives and livelihoods. Iconic Southern food joints like Middendorf's, in Akers, Louisiana were hit hard.   Do what you can this weekend to assist in the recovery.  Afterwards, you can open your six-pack.

1.  The Waffle House Index for understanding storm impact took on a whole new role during Isaac.  Yes, Waffle House wants to stay open and sell waffles.  But, they also want to create a social networking community which can inform folks inside and outside a storm zone about how dire the conditions might be.

2.  Many states have stopped wringing their hands about this nation's childhood obesity epidemic and have started legislating.  Bans on the sale of sugary and salty snacks are common.  Requirements regarding food prep and daily exercise are gaining a toe hold.  Do these efforts make a difference?  Early answer:  Yes. Yes, indeed. But slowly.

3.  Speaking of legislation....  North Carolinians, better and more authentic charcuterie may be headed your way.  Which you will, of course, enjoy only in moderation.

4.  Speaking of moderation, our decidedly immoderate love affair with bourbon is causing serious headaches for car and home owners in Kentucky.  Think spring's yellow pollen blanket only black and a fungus and really really hard to wash off.  Did we mention it's a fungus?

5.  Cooking and eating at home.  It's seldom glamorous.  It's rarely truly fun.  But it is worthwhile.  Thanks for the pep-talk, Tracie McMillan!

6.  It's Dragon*Con weekend.  Dragon Con is the east coast version of Comic Con, only better.  Because it's held in Atlanta, Georgia.  And it is awesome.  Speaking of comic book-sci-fi awesomness, a new genre of comic books are filling up the inboxes of e-readers everywhere:  the foodie comic.  Anthony Bourdain's, Get Jiro! and six volumes of Chew ought to see you through the long holiday weekend.

Behind the Scenes of Pride & Joy

In case you missed last week's post, Joe York is getting ready to unveil Pride & Joy, a feature-length documentary about Southern food that is some six years and fifty thousand highway miles in the making. Pride & Joy will screen for the first time at the 2012 Southern Foodways Symposium. After that, look for it to come to a special event, a film festival, or a public television station near you. Here at SFA world headquarters, we're so excited that we'll be sharing a little nugget of film news with you every week.

In Pride & Joy, Joe visits dozens of men and women who dedicate their lives to growing, catching, cooking, serving, or studying food and drink in the South. Some are the subjects of previous SFA short films, and there are many new faces as well.

Bill Best is a farmer from Berea, Kentucky. He was the subject of Joe York's first film, 2003's Saving Seeds (made with Matt Bruder). A devotee of heirloom vegetables, Best explains in the film that he farms "tomatoes for money, and beans for love."

For his seed-saving work, which preserves both genetic diversity and Appalachian cultural heritage, Best won the SFA's Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award in 2003.

Look for Best to return in Pride & Joy. Weather permitting, you'll want to have a tomato sandwich on hand while you watch.

Thursday, August 30

Kitchen to Classroom: Teaching with Your Mouth Full

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
A weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley. 

Food history is coming out of the academic closet. Last year, Radical History Review published a panel discussion of historians who teach food history classes. “Eating in Class: Gastronomy, Taste, Nutrition, and Teaching Food History” describes the often-indirect paths professors have taken to engage students in foodways scholarship.

Many historians surreptitiously introduced food studies into their syllabi in decades past. University of Minnesota professor Jeffrey Pilcher “smuggled food” into core curriculum classes, “finding all the places where food has shaped history.” University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor Warren Belasco recalls working “under the deanly radar” to pioneer the study of food history in the 1980s. He still supposes that colleagues view him with “amusement and suspicion.”

Foodways can be important for what they reveal about larger historical trends. New York University professor Amy Bentley believes food helps students make sense out of otherwise “complicated topics [that seem] far from their experience [such as] politics, international trade, and empire.” She uses Sidney Mintz’s 1986 now-classic Sweetness and Power to explain how sugar was connected to slavery, industrialization, empire, and modernity.

Despite its covert beginnings, a brief scan today reveals a smorgasbord of food studies offerings. My classes at the University of Mississippi use food as a lens to view culture and history. Last spring,with an ambitious group of undergraduate students, I contextualized and problematized The Help by studying the history of food and racial labor in the South. University of Texas professor Elizabeth Engelhardt encourages students to analyze the “texts” of food including “recipes, food labels, garden histories....” Duke University professor Sharon P. Holland asks her graduate students to explore new ways to examine the intersections of food and race. In short, if you attend college today, chances are good that the cafeteria will not be the only place that you’ll encounter food.

—Angela Jill Cooley

Recommended Reading: White Bread

White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon, March 2012)
by Aaron Bobrow-Strain

Aaron Bobrow-Strain's White Bread first drew our attention because—as we might have told you once or twice—we've got barbecue on the brain this year. In many barbecue restaurants across the South, white bread serves as a neutral sopper or a foil for sauce-drenched meat. But Bobrow-Strain's new book explains that the fluffy stuff is anything but innocuous. Indeed, it's framed a plethora of social debates in the United States for over a century. Recently, Gravy asked him some questions about his research.

GRAVY: What makes bread—specifically mass-produced loaves of white bread—such an appropriate case for study for a discussion of food history and politics in the United States? 

Aaron Bobrow-Strain: When I started this project, I had no idea what an important role bread played in the modern American diet. The country got, on average, 30% of its daily caloric intake from some form of bread—mostly white—from the late nineteenth century until the mid-1960s.

Because it was so essential to so many people, bread became one of the country's most fought-over foods. Nearly every social reformer, diet guru, health expert, domestic advisor, military war planner, public health official, and social movement of the past century wanted to change America's bread or its bread habits in some way. So white bread is a great way to explore our nation's long, turbulent love affair with trying to "save the world" by getting people to eat differently.

In the debate between white and whole-grain breads, where, if at all, does the iconic Southern cornbread fit in? 

During the early twentieth century, most "experts," and lots of ordinary consumers—even in the South—believed that cornbread was an inferior food. Progressive Era food reformers fanned out all over the South to teach the gospel of modern, "scientific" eating habits to the poor. Preferring cornbread to white-wheat was seen as a sign of backwardness, and many Southerners bought that logic.

There's one interesting exception to this story. During WWI, in an effort to conserve wheat for soldiers and allies, the U.S. government launched a massive campaign promoting cornbread consumption. The government put Southern cooks on tour to teach northerners about the joys of cornbread, sponsored seminars on the nutritional virtues of corn, and ran patriotic ads extolling corn as America's "original food." For just a moment, cornbread wasn't portrayed as a threat to the nation's health, but as essential to it.

As you mention in the book, 2009 was the first year in which sales of wheat bread eclipsed sales of white bread in U.S. grocery stores. Where will white bread be in ten years? 

Wonder Bread's parent company is in bankruptcy proceedings right now—a judge is going to have to decide whether America's most iconic industrial bread is "Too Fluffy to Fail." There's a lot going on in that case, but part of it has to do with a big cultural shift away from industrial white bread. I suspect that people will always want industrial white bread for certain uses (including soaking up barbecue sauce!), but it will continue to fade away over the next ten years. At the same time, thanks to massive and growing inequality in the United States, the larger social divides epitomized by industrial white bread's lowly status today will continue unless we do something about it. We have a polarized food system that produces healthy, high-quality food mostly for the wealthy and garbage for the rest. The history of battles over white bread suggests that changing this mess will require more than just "voting with our forks" or "helping" the poor make better choices.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain teaches food politics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

Wednesday, August 29

A Difficult Anniversary

Mai Van Nguyen, shrimper, Bayou La Batre, AL
Photo by Ashley Hall
On this day, August 29, the anniversary of Katrina and the day Hurricane Isaac made landfall, we remember. And we celebrate.

We celebrate the people of the Gulf Coast--the shrimpers and the cast net makers, the boat builders and the po-boy bread bakers. And we thank them for sharing their stories.

Step away from The Weather Channel for a while and spend some time with some voices from the Gulf.

Visit our 2006  Gulf Coast Foodways Renaissance interviews, a project that we pursued as an effort to chronicle the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the foodways of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, while concurrently tracking the rebirth of the New Orleans restaurant industry.

Get lost in the layers of stories on our Southern Boudin and Southern Gumbo Trails, two large-scale oral history projects that we created to support culinary tourism in Louisiana after Katrina.

Spend some time on the Apalachicola Bay with oystermen, soft-shell crab cultivators, and more from our 2006 project, Florida's Forgotten Coast, which documents the seafood industry in the Florida panhandle.

Go inside the Vietnamese and Croatian communities of Biloxi, Mississippi, by visiting our 2008 oral history project, Biloxi's Ethnic Shrimping Communities.

Read our special Summer 2010 Gulf Edition of Gravy, our foodletter, for which Ashley Hall reported on the BP Oil Spill from Biloxi, Mississippi, to Apalachicola, Florida, revisiting oral history subjects and documenting the devastation and hardship this manmade disaster left in its wake.

View Joe York's short film, Blessing of the Fleet, which was shot in Bayou La Batre, Alabama, just after the BP Oil Spill.

Learn about the people who call Bayou Lafourche and Grand Isle, Louisiana, home by visiting the oral histories that are part of our Down the Bayou project, which we published earlier this summer. These stories are from Plaquemines Parrish, where Hurricane Isaac passed through just this morning, doing more damage today than the area suffered during Katrina.

Our friends along the Gulf Coast are forever on our minds and in our hearts.

Stir the Pot Nashville, Sept 16-17



On Sunday, September 16, and Monday, September 17, Nashville, Tennessee-based chefs Tyler Brown and Tandy Wilson will host a two-night Stir the Pot benefit for the Southern Foodways Alliance. Brown is the executive chef of the Capitol Grille at Nashville's Hermitage Hotel, where he stocks his pantry with the goods he and his team of farmers grow at Glen Leven Farm just a few miles from the hotel. At City House, opened in 2007, Wilson interprets the flavors of Italy, turning out dishes like pork-belly pizzas, with frequent nods to his own Southern heritage. Chefs Brown and Wilson host guest chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal and Son of a Gun in Los Angeles, California.

Shook and Dotolo, both natives of Florida, have been cooking together since they met at culinary school in 1999. Based in Los Angeles for the past decade, they ran a catering company and published the cookbook Two Dudes, One Pan before opening Animal in 2008. They were named together on Food & Wine magazine's list of the ten best new chefs of 2009. Animal has developed a following for its imaginative, envelope-pushing meat dishes, which range from chicken-fried sweetbreads to lamb tongue ravioli. In 2011, Shook and Dotolo opened the seafood-centric Son of a Gun, which references their Florida roots with dishes such as alligator schnitzel.

These four gentlemen—or dudes, if you prefer—will knock your Vans off with the menus they've prepared for Stir the Pot.

Dinner at Capitol Grille on Sunday, September 16
A five-course dinner with wine pairings ($150/ticket)
Wine courtesy of Horizon Wine & Spirits

Potluck at Corsair Taproom on Monday, September 17
Host chefs Tyler Brown and Tandy Wilson will supply a main course. Guests are asked to bring a side dish or dessert to share. Corsair Taproom is the hop-infused arm of Corsair Artisan, a Nashville micro-distillery that produces small batches of spirits ranging from gin to absinthe. ($35 ticket includes food and a couple of drinks)

The Stir the Pot fundraising series, featuring events in both Raleigh, North Carolina, and Nashville, supports the documentary projects of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

Capitol Grille
The Hermitage Hotel
231 6th Avenue North
Nashville, TN

Corsair Taproom
1200 Clinton Street
Nashville, TN

Sunday, September 16 from 7—10 pm
Monday, September 17 from 6—9 pm

Tickets for the dinner are priced at $150 per person, and includes food, drink, and a one year gift membership to the SFA. They are ON SALE NOW and are available by advance purchase online only.

Tickets for the potluck are priced at $35 per person, and includes a main course and drinks (beer and cocktails)—but guests are asked to please bring a side dish or dessert to share. They are ON SALE NOW and are available by advance purchase online only. 

The Lowdown on Barbecue Down Under

From the sauce-splattered keyboard of guest blogger Adrian Miller.

I first heard of Australian barbecue in the 1980s, when actor Paul Hogan (of Crocodile Dundee fame) promised me through the TV that he'd "Put an extra shrimp on the barbie" for me, if only I visited the Land Down Under. I figured out that Hogan was talking about a grill and not the iconic doll, but any further conclusions remained elusive.

Decades later, the "Barbie Babes," a team of three native Australians competing on the Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race, raised my hopes for finally getting some answers. That was before their team was eliminated during the show's second episode—far too soon to share their spin on barbecue with America. Still hungry, I reached out to Awia Markey, an Aussie who's writing a book on soul food. After polling a cross-section of her friends, Markey gave me this description: "The most basic form of BBQ is known over here as the 'Sausage Sizzle'…always with [grilled] onion, and then the sausages and onion are put between two slices of (usually) white bread." Other meats can be the choice entrée, including lamb chops and, of course, shrimp.

I'm so relieved that Crocodile Dundee didn't lie to me in my youth.

Typical sides at an Aussie barbecue include a green salad, potato salad, coleslaw, and beets. Though the Australian version doesn't meet the "low and slow" standard necessitated by purists, it's an interesting example of how a culinary art is practiced elsewhere on Planet Barbecue.

You can follow Adrian Miller on Twitter at @soulfoodscholar.

Tuesday, August 28

Barbecue Mentors, Vol. 2: Warner Stamey

From the sauce-splattered keyboard of guest blogger Robert Moss. 

Two weeks ago we looked at Henry Perry, the “barbecue king” of Kansas City. This week, we turn to Warner Stamey, arguably North Carolina's most influential barbecue mentor.

Born in 1911, Stamey got started in the business in 1927 when, as a high-school student, he began working part-time at Jess Swicegood’s barbecue stand in Lexington. Three years later, he moved to Shelby, where, following the methods he learned at Swicegood’s, he sold barbecue near the courthouse from a tent with a sawdust floor.

Warner Stamey

Two Shelby residents, Alston Bridges (Stamey’s brother-in-law) and Red Bridges (no relation), got their start working with Stamey, and they later branched out and opened their own restaurants, Alston Bridges Barbecue and Bridges Barbecue Lodge, both of which are now considered legendary Piedmont North Carolina barbecue restaurants.

But Stamey was hardly done. In 1938 he returned to Lexington and bought out Swicegood’s operations for 300 dollars. There, he taught Wayne Monk, another legendary North Carolina barbecue man, who went on to open Lexington Barbecue. Stamey ended his barbecue wanderings in Greensboro, where he opened Stamey’s on High Point Road in 1953, which he eventually handed off to his sons Charles and Keith.

In addition to spreading the Lexington style of barbecue—pork shoulder chopped fine and served with a vinegar-based “dip” with just a touch of ketchup—Stamey is credited with introducing hushpuppies, which are now one of the signature side dishes at barbecue joints across the Tarheel state.
Chip Stamey, grandson of Warner Stamey. Photo by Denny Culbert, 2011

Though the original building was replaced in 1979, Stamey’s is still in operation in Greensboro, where owner Chip Stamey cooks pork shoulders in brick pits over hardwood hickory coals, just they way his grandfather Warner Stamey did back in the 1930s.

Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper, is the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. You can follow him on Twitter at @mossr.

We Saved You a Plate

Photo by Marion Post (Wolcott), 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
"We Saved You a Plate" is a weekly series showcasing an article from Gravy or Cornbread Nation, or a past symposium presentation. We serve it up, you gulp it down. 

This piece—a little-known lesson in African American drinkways—was originally delivered as a presentation at the 2008 SFA symposium on the Liquid South. It was later printed in Cornbread Nation 5.

Praise Wine
by John Simpkins

I've been black since birth. I'm not sure how long I've been a Jew. "You're the only black person I know who can quote Woody Allen movies," said my Jewish friend, Peter, when I asked him to assess my Jewishness. "I only quote from the early good ones," I explained. "And those I love. In fact, love is too weak a word for what I feel. I more than love them. I 'lurve' them."

"Sammy Davis Jr. was your favorite member of the Rat Pack," Peter continued, pressing his case. "You even sent your three-year-old to summer camp at the Jewish Community Center. He recognizes the Israeli flag, can sing the dreidel song, and is constantly asking for challah. If you're not Jewish, Jonah certainly is."

Pete then reminded me how excited I was when he offered to read from the Zohar at my wedding. Then I remembered the frequent calls from my mother during my travels. "I'm just calling to see how you're doing. Ohm don't worry about me. I'm fine. I just thought I'd call since I hadn't heard from you in awhile. No, things are fine here. Don't worry about me."

I know why I'm black, but it was harder to figure out why I'm a Jew. As with so many voyages of personal discovery, the search for my Inner Jew begins with food and drink. For me, any discussion of food has to include Sundays with my grandmother. Mama Sena's house in Lexington, South Carolina, was the Sunday dinner gathering place for the eighteen of us first cousins, who spanned a twenty-three year age range and felt more like siblings than cousins. Because she was a church lady, there was little work actually done in Mama Sena's house on the Sabbath. She even refused to allow anyone to wash clothes on Sunday for fear that "someone could be washed out of the family." It is primarily for this reason that I spent most of my childhood fearing washing machines as agents of death.

The fruits of the labors of the rest of the week, however, were in abundance. The standard Sunday menu featured cucumbers in white vinegar, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, ham, rice, gravy, and stew beef, ending in a lemon chiffon ice cream love fest. Our drink of choice was either Coca-Cola or iced tea, except for the most auspicious dinners On very special occasions—holidays, weddings, births—Mama Sena's table would include wine. This was the only alcohol I ever saw Mama Sena drink. Indeed it was her only vice. Except for smoking like a chimney and cussing like a sailor. But otherwise, her only vice. Thought we had our share of alcoholics in the family, drinking hard liquor always seemed to be an after-hours activity.

And when Mama Sena served wine, she always chose kosher wine. Mogen David and Manischewitz provided me with my first taste of alcohol. This, too, marked the beginning of my transformation into one of the Chosen People. To me, wine had to have that "double triangle thingy" on it in order to be truly legit. It didn't hurt to have a bunch of bearded guys dressed all in black. Far more important than vintage were these things.

Exactly why my grandmother adopted kosher wine as our celebratory drink of choice remains something of a mystery. Theories abound, from the sweetness that surely appealed to infrequent wine drinkers, to price, to the fact that kosher wine frequently has been used in communion services in African American churches.

As a member of the Women's Missionary Society in our local AME church, Mama Sena would have been responsible from time to time for obtaining wine for the sacrament. She may have developed a taste for it in the course of carrying out her duties. Drinking kosher wine in the home was just another example of how African Americans deftly navigate the sacred and the profane, never allowing one to destroy their appreciation for the other. The journey that kosher wine took from the communion table to Mama Sena's table was in some ways no different than the musical wanderings of Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and Sam Cooke from gospel to R&B and back again.

In fact, one of the oldest of the eighteen first cousins still refers to kosher wine as "praise wine" and keeps a bottle of Mogen David hidden away in her pantry, as if to prevent it from contaminating the high-toned good stuff she so proudly displays in her fancy under-the-counter wine fridge. For her, it's a comfortable memory of our childhood. Or perhaps a constant connection to her own Inner Jew.

Ultimately, it matters little why Mama Sena and other African American church women developed a taste for kosher wine. In addition to bringing families together, "praise wine" has produced a generation of black oenophiles. It has propelled me to a global adventure of food and drink of all kinds. I've had wine from Bordeaux, Otago, the Okanagan Valley, and most parts in between. Meanwhile, I've formed friendships that have outlasted any bottle. In addition to leading me to an appreciation for being a black Jew, praise wine has enriched my life in a profound way. In other words, it has been a mitzvah.

Monday, August 27

Lone Star Dispatch: Israel "Pody" Campos

From the keyboard of guest blogger Daniel Vaughn, whose computer smells vaguely of brisket. 

At the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas is the tiny town of Pecos. It’s a long way from Austin both culturally and geographically, but Pecos native Israel ‘Pody’ Campos found his way back home after being laid off from the Austin police force in a wave of budget cuts. Upon returning to Pecos in 2011, he bought an empty laundromat and a couple of wood-burning smokers. Pody’s BBQ was born.

Israel "Pody" Campos. All photos by Nicholas McWhirter

Pody prepares his ribs on a standard offset smoker. The brisket smoker, on the other hand, is an odd-looking contraption, with a long pipe connecting the remote firebox with a vertical-drum smoking chamber. Israel designed a series of rotating circular shelves: a lazy Susan for meat. The results—expertly cooked beef and pork, both imbued with deep smokiness and laced with jet-black bark—kept me from questioning his design.

Pody Campos explains his Rube Goldberg-esque smoker to Daniel Vaughn, who's about to become a believer.

While the smoker is a curiosity, Pody’s most idiosyncratic feature may be his choice of wood. Once you get west of San Angelo, it’s a rarity to find a stick of anything other than mesquite. Not much else grows out here, and the shipping costs usually preclude the use of any other wood. Israel still uses mesquite on his briskets, but mixes it with a heavy dose of oak. Texas native pecan wood from several hundred miles away fuels the rib smoker, along with cherry wood, which I haven’t encountered in any other Texas BBQ joint. Pody says that using all mesquite was too harsh for his taste. Oak serves to mellow out the burn of the mesquite, while cherry provides a distinct sweetness. I also haven’t seen a side offering of green chile and cheese hominy or barbecue sauce with actual chunks of habanero, but Pody’s doesn’t just offer what’s expected. And for that, I'm grateful.

Multicultural comfort food: ribs and mac-n-cheese play nicely with cheesy green chile hominy.

You can follow Daniel Vaughn on Twitter at @bbqsnob.

Photo of the Week: Joey Fonseca

Photo by Sara Roahen. Click to enlarge
This week we're thinking of our friends on the Gulf Coast and hoping that Hurricane Isaac spares them. Pictured above is Joey Fonseca, the proprietor of Des Allemands Outlaw Katfish Co., which is located in the small community of Des Allemands, Louisiana, between New Orleans and Houma. SFA oral history correspondent Sara Roahen interviewed Fonseca in November of 2011 as part of the "Down the Bayou" oral history project, a snapshot of life in rural southeastern Louisiana.

Click the links above to read more about Mr. Fonseca and the rest of the Down the Bayou project.

Friday, August 24

Southern Six-Pack

1.  Miss Lambstock this year?  The New York Times and many of your favorite Southerners didn't.  Next year, plan to pack up your tent, your liver, and your calamine lotion and head to Patrick Springs, Virginia for Lambstock 2013, A Carnivorous Exposition:  Three Days of Sheep and Music.  You'll be glad you did.

2.  Now that complex heirloom cocktails mixed by guys with complex heirloom facial hair have played out, what's next? The charity bar.  Non-profit bars where the proceeds benefit one or several philanthropic efforts are opening in D.C., Portland, and Houston. Look for OKRA's (Organized Kolaboration on Restaurant Affairs) charity bar, which will benefit a rotating group of Houston based organizations or social causes to open in late 2012 or early 2013.  Portland's Oregon Public House and D.C.'s Cause are set to open this fall.

3.  The Blaxican food truck brings Mexican Soul Food to the streets of Atlanta. 

4.  Early spring heat and late spring frost hit North Carolina's apple crop hard.  Next weekend's North Carolina Apple Festival in Hendersonville, marks the unofficial start of the apple season.  Sadly, many of North Carolina's apple growers won't have much to celebrate.

5.  Bacon?  This is your old friend, Cranberry.  We need to talk.

6.  Savor that bite.  Clean your plate.  Sop up the juices.  Force a forkful on a friend.  But for heavens sake, stop taking pictures of your food! 


Recommended Reading: Taco USA

Author Gustavo Arellano with his new book, Taco USA.
Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America
by Gustavo Arellano (Scribner, April 2012)

In Taco USA, the Mexican-American journalist Gustavo Arellano explores how Mexican fare—from chile con carne to frozen margaritas—has entered the U.S. mainstream. Arellano notes that, time and again, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs from north of the border have tasted immigrant fare, tweaked (or radically altered) its recipes to suit American palates, and figured out how to mass-produce it. This pattern has held true from the canned chili and tamales of the late 1800s to the hard-shell taco that Taco Bell popularized in the second half of the twentieth century.

Arellano is the editor of the southern California alternative newspaper OC Weekly, author of the syndicated column “!Ask a Mexican!,” and a lecturer in Chicano/a Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Taco USA is thoughtfully researched and full of cultural and culinary history, yet written in an informal, humorous, even conversational tone. It’s a smart read, but it goes down as easy as queso dip.

The book is organized more by cuisine and specific food than by chronology. It covers not only the gabacho-fication (gabacho is used far more than gringo among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans) of stalwarts like hot tamales and steak fajitas, but also explores the Mexican origins of vanilla and chocolate. The latter two flavors, Arellano explains, essentially left their original, indigenous-Mexican producers in the dust (along with their innate complexity of taste) as they rose to global prominence over the past few centuries.

The author also steps back from time to time for a broader look at trends in Mexican-American culinary syncretization. He writes about the Nouveau Southwestern Cuisine craze of the 1980s, the nebulous, hybrid behemoth that is Tex-Mex, and the national domination of the Mission-style burrito via chains like Chipotle.

Though Arellano laments the lack of credit that Mexican immigrants have received for their contributions to the national palate, he’s not a purist. Rather, he decries what he sees as the snobbery of fundamentalist gabacho-Mexican chefs such as the American Rick Bayless and the British expatriate Diana Kennedy. And Arellano is frank about his love for hybridized Mexican food, from LA’s trendy Korean burritos to bacon-wrapped, Sonoran-style hotdogs from a working-class neighborhood in Tucson.

Throughout the book, Arellano is more curious about the underlying narratives of Mexican-American food as he is about how the dishes taste, or what the “authentic” versions are supposed to be. Ultimately, his criteria for a great Mexican meal is also an apt description of the book itself: “Perfection doesn’t exist, but a great story paired with a satisfying lunch? An eater’s dream.”

* * *

We are excited that Gustavo Arellano will be joining us at our annual symposium in October to talk about Mexican influences in barbecue on this side of the border. We'll be sure to post a podcast of this talk and many others, so stay tuned. 

Thursday, August 23

Behind the Scenes of Pride & Joy

Joe York is getting ready to unveil Pride & Joy, a feature-length documentary about Southern food that is some six years and fifty thousand highway miles in the making. Pride & Joy will screen for the first time at the 2012 Southern Foodways Symposium. After that, look for it to come to a special event or a public television station near you. Here at SFA world headquarters, we're so excited that we'll be sharing a little nugget of film news with you every week.

In Pride & Joy, Joe visits dozens of men and women who dedicate their lives to growing, catching, cooking, serving, or studying food and drink in the South. Some are the subjects of previous SFA short films, and there are many new faces as well.

Leah Chase is one of the fifty founding members of the SFA (she was our first board president, in fact) and the matriarch of Dooky Chase Restaurant, a New Orleans institution.

In 1945, she met musician Edgar "Dooky" Chase II, whose parents owned the restaurant. After the two married, and when their children were old enough to attend school, Leah Chase began working at the restaurant three days a week, first as a hostess, later as a chef. In the years that followed she has transformed Dooky Chase into a landmark of New Orleans cookery, dishing peerless gumbo and other Creole delicacies. Along the way, she has befriended such luminaries as Justice Thurgood Marshall and musician Ray Charles.

You may hear more of her story in her own words in Pride & Joy. To tide yourself over, check out our 2004 oral history with Mrs. Chase, or read Sara Roahen's excellent profile of her in the October/November 2011 issue of Garden & Gun.

Food is about everything, you know. You can do everything – music and food, people and food. That's the most important thing about food: It brings you [together] with people. And I think that's the only reason why I stayed in it that long.            —Leah Chase

Kitchen to Classroom: A Taste of Foodways Scholarship

Students at McKinley High School in Washington, DC, learn about nutrition and food rationing during WWII. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley.

This week my award for "Academic Article I Wish I Had Written" goes to Andrew P. Haley at the University of Southern Mississippi for “The Nation before Taste: The Challenges of American Culinary History,” published in the recent food issue of The Public Historian  (vol 34, no. 2, May 2012).*

Kudos to The Public Historian for being the latest scholarly journal to center an issue on foodways. As an important component of material culture, food can communicate history to the general public through many different forums. Making the contributions of interdisciplinary food scholars more accessible is an important goal of the practice of public history.

Haley’s article reminds us, however, that food in popular culture sometimes can focus too much on nostalgia and myth. It is important, he says, to frame food writing and programming in its appropriate historical context. Achieving this involves recognizing, for instance, that the American fascination with taste is a rather recent phenomenon. Turn-of-the-century diners, according to Haley, rarely acknowledged the sensory experience of food. They focused instead on the prestige of the dining experience—the status of the chef, the ostentation of the surroundings, or the prominence of their fellow diners.

Understanding this context involves explorations of period-specific constructions of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and the body—not just the food itself. Americans—and Southerners—of earlier eras attached different meanings to food. Haley reminds us of the need to explore these meanings and avoid imposing contemporary values on the act of eating. I invite you to check out Haley’s article or his larger work Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of America’s Middle Class, 1880-1920 (which won a James Beard Award earlier this year) to get a little taste of some delicious scholarship.

—Angela Jill Cooley

*If you have access to JSTOR, you can read the latest issue of Public Historian by clicking here.

Wednesday, August 22

Project Preview: Nashville Meat-N-Threes

Why is Nashville a meat-n-three mecca, with more than a half-dozen great restaurants to choose from, while cities of equal or larger size—say Atlanta or Birmingham or Charlotte—can claim only a couple or three truly great lunch spots? We visited with David Swett and the late Hap Townes in 2006 to try and find out, but we left with more questions.

This summer, we went back. We collected oral histories with the proprietors of some of Music City's iconic plate lunch joints: Arnold's Country Kitchen, The Pie Wagon, Wendell Smith's, and Dandgure's. 

But, we might still have to lean on John Egerton's position on the matter: "I think this is the kind of thing you just thank your lucky stars for, the kind of blessing you chalk up to unearned grace.”

Look for the newest additions to our Nashville Meat-N-Three oral history project to appear online in the coming weeks.

Lone Star Dispatch: Barbecue, in a Word

From the keyboard of guest blogger Daniel Vaughn, whose computer smells vaguely of brisket. 

In a world of increasing shorthand, especially on Twitter, you can expect to find BBQ, 'cue, or even Q when referring to smoked meats. If you're going by the AP Style Guide, the only proper spelling is "barbecue." I once asked Aaron Franklin if he spelled out the name of his Austin brisket temple, Franklin Barbecue, on purpose. He confirmed that it was intentional—"BBQ just sounds like you're in a hurry."

On the signs of joints all over Texas, I've commonly seen Barbeque, Bar-B-Que, Bar-B-Q, and even BBCue. I thought I'd seen all of the iterations until last week, when my friend Eric Sandler tweeted a photo of a Houston-area barbecue trailer with "BARBEE Q" stenciled on the side.

Photo by Eric Sandler (@esandler)

It's generally agreed that the etymological precursor to the English word "barbecue" is the Spanish term "barbacoa." In Texas, we've appropriated that term to refer specifically to the head of a cow—or sometimes that of a goat or lamb—cooked in the ground over coals. Even with a clear historical connection between barbacoa and barbecue, there are still legends out there. One claims that "barbe a queue" is the French term for "beard to tail," referring to the use of a whole animal. Another claims that the predecessor is a cattle brand: "— B Q."

Photo by Nicholas McWhirter (@redblank)

I hadn't seen either of these legends given credence in my home state until I walked into the Bar-B-Q Man in Corpus Christi. The owner was a friend of Cecil Cotten, proprietor of the former Joe Cotten's, and Cecil had given him some chairs salvaged from the defunct restaurant. I experienced a rush like you'd get when finding a forgotten relic. But mainly, I just wanted one of those chairs.

You can follow Daniel Vaughn on Twitter at @bbqsnob.

Tuesday, August 21

We Saved You a Plate

A church picnic in Yanceyville, NC, 1940. Photo by Marion Post (Wolcott), courtesy of the Library of Congress.
"We Saved You a Plate" is a weekly series showcasing an article from Gravy or Cornbread Nation, or a past symposium presentation. We serve it up, you gulp it down. 

This week's piece comes from Gravy # 40, spring 2011. 

The High Art of the Plate Lunch
Easy conversation and difficult menu choices at T-Coon's
by Francis Lam

The racoons torment us at night. They arrived a few weeks ago, tired of the winter, founding their camp in our ceiling. Under them, we sleep, snug and in love, until the scratching starts. Then Christine jumps, screeching, panting from fear. I moan. I try to calm her; she flails. I pound the walls. We wail.

And yet, despite our shivery-eyed terror of small woodland creatures, our hearts still melt at the sight of one particular cigar-smoking, apron wearing, pot-stirring raccoon. Just a mention of T-Coon, a whiskered, ring-eyed restaurant mascot will make Christine suck in an excited breath and sing, "I love T-Coon's!" We smile and dance, full of remembrance of meatball fricassees past.

My friend Pableaux Johnson brought me to T-Coon's in Lafayette as the first stop on a forty-eight-hour tour of his Acadiana homeland. For a trip that would involve the eating of sackfuls of cracklins and unpretty lengths of boudin off of truck tailgates, it was important to start with a proper meal, and so we came for meats smothered in two languages.

Photo by Denny Culbert

"This is the high art of the plate lunch," Pableaux declared, the pronouncement hovering over his plate of smothered beef. The crawfish étoufée tasted of cream and pepper and the sweet, clean earth of mudbugs. And I swore I saw a halo ringing a big ol' meatball with chocolate-brown gravy that seeped into a mound of Louisiana rice, chewy and angelically white. As the flavors soaked our brains, Pableaux said that these were the tastes he grew up on, "like what I ate in school, back when little old lunch ladies still cooked for the kids." He picked up a roll, imbued with a fresh squishiness and a spirit of memory.

I looked at the line to the cafeteria-style steam table, crooking around to the iced-tea station. In it were young people and old, people away from work for an hour, trays in hand, making easy conversation and difficult menu choices. A chest-high pile of fried catfish and shrimp? Red beans? Dressing—or rice and gravy?

Man, that rice and gravy.

David "T-Coon" Billeaud. Photo by Denny Culbert.

T-Coon's is a deeply Cajun restaurant, but by that I mean that it is a place of this community, not a cayenne-dusted cliché. It's a distinction that owner David Billeaud, T-Coon himself, takes seriously: In a "thanks-for-coming: note on his menu, he makes it a point to tell yu that he doesn't call his food "Cajun."

"What they call 'Cajun' is not even close," he explained to me. "I like to call my food 'zydeco cooking.' Because what the hell is zydeco? At least they have nothing to stereotype it to." But he continued, careful to stake his claim: "Now, if you gotta know if I'm Cajun or not, you got a mental issue. I'm from five generations in Broussard. I cook in black iron pots."

"This is old-time grandma cooking," Billeaud continued, and, unprompted, he started telling me about his slow-simmered catfish courtbuillon, At its very mention, without even a pause for breath, he spelled out the name of the dish, so I wouldn't write it "cubuyon" or something equally foolish. (The catfish, by the way, may or may not come from his own lines, depending on who you are and why you want to know.) Then he spoke of his fricassee, which he pronounced as if it should be written out in three words.

T-Coon grew up in his family's meat market. "I never worked in a restaurant til I opened mine eighteen years ago. But I knew how to cook. I've been stuffing pork roasts since I'm knee-high." One of seven children, he learned how to make a roux from his father, who put him on a stool at the stove just to give him something to do, in the way most parents drop their kids in front of the TV. "We live to eat. That's just how we are," he said.

I took notice of the word "we." He was starting to let on what it means to be Cajun. "For us, everything's done around food," he said. "If someone comes, you make sure they eat your best stuff. That's how we're raised, that's just how we do."

If someone comes, you make sure they eat your best stuff. I liked that, wrote it down. As we were wrapping up our conversation—Billeaud's catfish lines needed tending to—I told him that his potato salad, which tastes like deviled eggs in starchy disguise, might be my girlfriend's favorite food. He let his catfish weight and told me how to make it, right then. He was making sure we'll be eating his best stuff.

Francis Lam is the features editor at and currently a judge on Bravo's Top Chef Masters: Season 4.

Pork Barrel Politics? Make that Whole Hog

From the sauce-stained keyboard of guest blogger Adrian Miller. 

There's been some big food and drink news on the campaign trail of late, from Paul Ryan's catfish-noodling hobby to President Obama's home-brewed "White House Honey Ale." They got me wondering if barbecue had ever taken center stage in a presidential campaign. (Well, since this one.)

Barbecues as a social event/fundraiser have a deep tradition in U.S. politics, but I think that Lyndon Johnson took things to another level in his effort to make barbecue a symbol of his 1964 re-election campaign. That summer, the Baton Rouge State-Times reported that Johnson had a "plan to turn Texas barbecue into a political weapon" with a "cross-country series of barbecues supervised by the barbecue chef from the president's LBJ ranch in Johnson City, Texas." The "barbecue chef" in question was Walter Jetton, a pitmaster and caterer from Fort Worth.

Spoiler alert—LBJ won his reelection bid. Here he is at a 1967 barbecue for Latin American ambassadors at the LBJ ranch. Photograph courtesy of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library. 

What distinguished this ambitious plan from past campaigns was that it aspired to take Texas barbecue to the uninitiated masses in cities like Beverly Hills, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis. The St. Albans (Vermont) Messenger reported in October 1964 that Johnson even contemplated occupying Wall Street with a massive, open-air barbecue where "several or more blocks of the nation's financial center would be roped off."

The idea was nixed by New York Democrats, who felt it was "too corny for Manhattan, especially for the President of the United States." I wonder what they—and LBJ himself—would have made of today's Big Apple Barbecue Block Party.

You can follow Adrian Miller on Twitter at @soulfoodscholar.

Monday, August 20

Mr. Nunn's Barbecue Stand: North Carolina's First Barbecue Restaurant?

From the sauce-splattered keyboard of guest blogger Robert Moss.

Back in February 2011, when Charlotte, North Carolina, was selected to host this year's Democratic National Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama found herself on the hot seat when she praised the city for its charm, hospitality, and "of course, great barbecue." The declaration drew a chorus of jeers from Carolina barbecue fans, who are passionate about their smoked pork but not so hot on offerings in the Queen City.

University of North Carolina sociologist John Shelton Reed, the co-author of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, had perhaps the best rejoinder. "Complete the sentence," he challenged the Associated Press. "As a good barbecue town, Charlotte is: one—not what it used to be; two—like Minneapolis for gumbo; three—good enough for Yankees; four—not far from Shelby."*

Not even the editorial board of the Charlotte Observer would come to the defense of its city's barbecue, saying, "Everybody knows to get the best stuff, you gotta drive north to Lexington."

Curiously enough, considering its reputation today, Charlotte may well have been the home of North Carolina's first barbecue restaurant. In March 1899, Mrs. Katie Nunn ran a classified ad in the Charlotte Observer announcing that she was opening a grocery store and barbecue stand at 13 South Church Street and that her husband, Levi Nunn, had constructed a large pit behind the store where he would cook the meat.

This was a good two decades before Sid Weaver and Jess Swicegood—considered among the pioneers of North Carolina barbecue entrepreneurship—started selling barbecue from tents outside the courthouse in Lexington.

Today, pork is synonymous with barbecue in North Carolina: whole hog in the eastern part of the state; shoulders in the Piedmont. Mr. and Mrs. Nunn's menu, however, included not just pork but beef and mutton, too—meats almost never seen in a Tarheel barbecue joint these days.

Little else is known about the Nunns. By 1902, their grocery store was no longer listed in the Charlotte city directory, and they appear to have moved on to another city. Perhaps they headed north to Lexington.

Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper, is the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. You can follow him on Twitter at @mossr. 

*Shelby, if you haven't been, is the home of Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, a famous purveyor of the Lexington-style barbecue that's native to the western Piedmont.

Friday, August 17

Southern Six-Pack

It was a long hot summer.  Much too long and too hot to keep a six-pack on ice the whole time.  Wonder of wonders, the dog days of August brought temperatures dipping into the low eighties and rain to Oxford.  Unfold that lawn chair.  Slather on that bug spray.  Enjoy the six-pack.  We iced it down for you.

1.  Southern Cultures second annual food issue is out. Marcie Cohen Ferris and Emily Wallace dish  up a side of multi-media treats to complement the main dish. Savor and enjoy!

2.  PepsiCo sees your small batch craft beers and raises you enormous batch craft Mountain Dew.  Mountain Dew Johnson City Gold, that is.  Honestly.

3.  Charleston's restaurant scene is booming and growing.  What's next?  Robert Moss is wishing and hoping for menus that reflect the low country of South Carolina not just the South as a whole.  Leave regional Southern cooking to those folks outside the South looking to dabble in the cuisine.  Those of us in the South ought to demand menus that reflect our place.

4.  A few Turkish women in Little Rock, Arkansas are building friendships, community, and cultural tolerance one dish at a time.

5.  Bon Appetit released its annual list of the Ten Best New Restaurants in America.  Southerners should love this list as Washington, D.C.; Houston, Texas;  Nashville, Tennessee, and Decatur, Georgia; all make a showing.  Manhattanites are hating the list because two Brooklyn joints made the top 10.  Haters gonna hate.  And tweet.  And write.

6.  Tom Willett, you're 72 years old.  You have a digital recorder, a point of view, and you happen to know the best way to eat a watermelon.  Yes, absolutely, share that 9:52 bit of informational gold with the whole world! Spoiler alert:  Tom's method involves marshmallows and peanut butter meaning it's not for the delicate stomach.

Do You Know Joe?

Joe York (r) on location. Photo by Hollis Bennett.

 Meet Joe York, the director of Pride & Joy, the SFA's forthcoming feature-length documentary. Check back often at the Pride & Joy website for updates on the film and behind-the-scenes tidbits.

Joe York hails from Glencoe, Alabama. He received a BA in anthropology from Auburn University and an MA in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi. While still a graduate student, Joe realized that he wanted to tell stories through film. The SFA gave him a video camera and a tip on an heirloom seed saver in Kentucky, and he was off and running.

Joe joined the staff of the University's Media and Documentary Projects, part of the University's Center for the Study of Southern Culture, in 2005. Since then, he has made over thirty short films and two feature-length documentaries, most of them in partnership with the SFA. He is also the author of a book of photography, With Signs Following: Photography of the Southern Religious Roadside (University Press of Mississippi, 2007).

Joe's films have won a bevy of accolades at film festivals in the South and beyond. He was named Food Filmmaker of the Year at the New York Food Film Fest in 2009, and has also won awards at the Oxford Film Festival, the Chicago Food Film Fest, and the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson, Mississippi.

Pride and Joy, Joe's feature-length documentary about Southern food, is six years and more than fifty thousand highway miles in the making.

He and his wife, Kathryn, live in Oxford with their black lab, Dinah. They are expecting their first child at the end of 2012.

Thursday, August 16

Lone Star Dispatch: Dallas Pig Stands

From the keyboard of guest blogger Daniel Vaughn, whose computer smells vaguely of brisket.

In a current exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art, a painting of Pig Stand #2 by George Grosz is on display. The level of detail serves as a time capsule of the cost of barbecue in 1952, when Grosz was in Dallas. A baked ham, barbecued beef, or barbecued pork sandwich would set you back $.35, while just a quarter would get a hamburger or an egg-American cheese-and-goose-liver sandwich. The description of the painting in the exhibit notes that "The experience was novel, and so was the food; the Pig Stand is said to have invented the onion ring, chicken fried steak, and Texas toast." Curiously, these items (all creations claimed by the Pig Stand at least a decade earlier) fail to appear on the hand-lettered menu in Grosz's painting.

"Pig Stand #2," by George Grosz. (Image scanned from exhibition postcard.)

Pig Stand #2 was opened in 1921, shortly after the original drive-in located in Dallas' Oak Cliff neighborhood. For the driver's convenience, the stands were built so close to the road that today, after the city streets have been widened to accommodate additional lanes of traffic, not even a foundation remnant is visible in the original locations. Fueled by the famous Pig Sandwich—sliced pork, relish, and special sauce—the chain's first dozen years enjoyed a growth trajectory matching that of McDonald's in the 1950s.

But the rapid expansion fizzled during World War II. The chain never really recovered after the War, but somehow limped into the twenty-first century. The last two Texas locations of The Pig Stand closed in 2006. Today, if you want an authentic Pig Sandwich, the closest you'll get is a San Antonio location of the former chain that reopened in 2007—and it'll set you back $6.59.

Follow Daniel Vaughn on Twitter at @bbqsnob.

From the Kitchen to the Classroom: Teaching Foodways and Southern Cultures

 A back-to-school note from Jill Cooley, postdoctoral fellow in Foodways.

A new semester is starting here at the University of Mississippi. And, at the SFA, we are hungry for the latest scholarship on Southern foodways and culture.

This is the second year that the SFA, with generous support from its members and from the Chisholm Foundation, has offered foodways classes under the auspices of the University's Center for the Study of Southern Culture. As the lucky professor teaching this course, I wanted to use my inaugural blog post to anticipate the coming semester.

Appropriately (considering the SFA's homage to barbecue at this fall's Symposium), our first reading is is Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket, by Elizabeth Engelhardt and her hard-working (but well-fed) graduate students at the University of Texas-Austin. I like to start the semester with this book because Engelhardt and her students set forth the questions that scholars need to ask about foodways: questions about place, space, gender, race, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, labor, short, questions about what dirves the decision-making process when it comes to what we eat and why. Foodways, after all, is not just about physical sustenance. 

Throughout the semester, we will analyze works that explore these questions written by interdisciplinary scholars such as Marcie Cohen Ferris, Psyche Willaims-Forson, Rebecca Sharpless, and James E. McWilliams, among others. In class, we will discuss, question, examine, debate—and, yes, eat—in an effort to understand how foodways reflects regional cuisine.

Can't join us in Oxford for the fall semester? Don't despair. I invite you to follow along with our class and engage with food in a new and thought-provoking way. Check out the course syllabus. Follow us on Twitter at @FoodandRace or by searching the hashtag #SST555. And stay tuned each week for my blog posts from the classroom.

—Angela Jill Cooley

Wednesday, August 15

Voices from the Pit: Sam Donald

Sam's Bar-B-Q, Humboldt, Tennessee

Photo by David Wharton

Sam Donald passed away in 2011. His daughter and son-in-law, Seresa and John Ivory, took over the business. Earlier this summer, Sam's Bar-B-Q sustained major damage from a fire. The Fatback Collective, along with Jim 'n Nick's Bar-B-Q and the SFA, have contributed sweat equity in the family's rebuilding efforts. As of this posting, Seresa and John are selling their barbecue on Saturdays outside the building.

As told to April Grayson by Sam Donald, March 2003.

I was born in 1920 in Gibson, about five miles from Humboldt. This building used to belong to my sister’s husband—he had a grocery store. And one day he decided he wanted to fix barbecue, so he asked me if I could make him a pit. I built a concrete pit for him out there, and then they built a big building over it. I used to cook for him sometimes. It’s just something that I picked up.

When my brother-in-law passed in 1988, the place closed. My son told me to I should open it back up. I was 65, so I quit my other job and took over this place. My brother-in-law used to cook some whole hogs. Now, I cook shoulders. I use oak and hickory wood from the sawmills down there in Hardeman County. And I get the shoulders from Dalton’s, over at Jackson. I serve my barbecue in sandwiches or by the pound. I used to smoke ribs and chicken and turkey. But I’m 83 years old, and there’s just so much you can do.

We’re open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I still cook the old, old-fashioned way. Now, most barbecue places are going to electric. Most of them are going to electric or gas or some other kind of cooking, but I’m still using wood. Unless it’s cooked by wood, it’s not good barbecue. I don’t rush the cooking. If I put a shoulder on this morning, I’ll take it up sometime tomorrow and put on some more. When I’m cooking, I’ll be back and forth, up til 12:00 at night, 11:00, according to how I feel. And then the next morning around 6:00, I’m back up here cooking.

My sauce recipe is mine. It’s got vinegar. And they always ask me how I make it. I put a little of this, a little of that, and then I’ll taste it. I’ll say, I need some more of this, and I put more. That’s the way I do it.

A guy came in here one time, in business with his brother-in-law, and he wanted me to sell him some sauce. I said, “Well, I don’t make that much.” And I let him have a bottle of it, you know, and when he came back, he said, “now I want a gallon of this sauce. Here’s the money right here; here’s $200.”

I told him, “I don’t have that much made. I just make a certain amount.”

And he said, “Well, when are you going to make some?”

And I said, “I’ll make some on Wednesday.”

And he said, “I was intending to go back home Monday, but I’ll be here when you make some.”

And when he came back by, he handed me $200 for a gallon.

We Saved You a Plate

A church barbecue in Yanceyville, NC, 1940. Photo by Marion Post (Wolcott), courtesy of the Library of Congress.

"We Saved You a Plate" is a weekly series showcasing an article from Gravy or Cornbread Nation, or a past symposium presentation. We serve it up, you gulp it down.

This week's piece comes from Gravy #44, June 2012. 

Speaking in Tongues
A barbecue communion 
by Jake Adam York

Several years ago, a graduate-school classmate and I intersected in Birmingham. We'd become friends over the poetry of Keats and Yeats in upstate New York. Once a semester, we would trek to Syracuse's Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, where I'd load a rack of ribs into my toothpick-thin body, to the amazement of the Harley-riding regulars. So on his first trip to Birmingham, I decided to take Paul to Dreamland.

Photo by Amy C. Evans

I mean the one near UAB. Paul wasn't ready for the Tuscaloosa cathedral. I had to ease him into it. And the Birmingham Dreamland was also part of my grad school experience: I went there with my parents just after it opened, when I made my first trip home from New York for Thanksgiving. Birmingham's Dreamland was one of the few places I could exceed my Dinosaur draw, polishing off a rack before moving on to the second. This was the obvious venue for an Alabama reunion with Paul. 

What barbecue you eat provides an image of your tongue, of your taste, and thereby of your general discernment—even your tolerance. Where you eat says a lot about you, too. My tongue has always preferred the tangy, the hot, and the salty to the sweet, and I like a little char on my meat. This was Dreamland at its best.

*   *    *

By the time Paul and I slide into a booth, I've begun to write poems that explore the legacies of the Civil Rights Movement. I've spent a lot of time in Birmingham revisiting the 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, and the Gaston Motel, tracing the paths of Dynamite Bob Chambliss and Bobby Frank Cherry. The city is a palimpsest: Tilt your head and you see the past beneath the present. Everywhere I go, I know where I am in relation to the city's historical landmarks. I sit, KElly Ingram over my right shoulder, thirty blocks away, Vulcan high over my left.

As we talk, I spot again one of the more intriguing pieces of Alabama ephemera that cover the walls, a sign that says STAND UP FOR ALABAMA—a relic from one of George Wallace's gubernatorial campaigns.

It wasn't easy being from Alabama—being white and from Alabama—in graduate school in upstate New York. I was always being asked to explain some Southern psychopathy, to parse the motives of the 16th Street Church bombers, as if being from the same place and of the same race as the killers meant that I had some special insight, maybe even that I was in league with them. I wanted, so many times, to hold a simple point of pride in my home. I wanted to feel something other than shame. Maybe that's what George Wallace wanted, too.

But I can't read that slogan and not think of Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, the very image of segregation. That history—the bombs and fire hoses and dogs, the resistance or the indifference to integration—casts its shadow over everything. So much separation. Belligerence, not pride. A fear, a separateness that hangs like smoke in the air.
Photo by Denny Culbert
A waiter catches my eye, and as he approaches, I think that if that fight against integration is a persistent part of our history, so, too, is the fight for integration. So, too, is the resistance to the old order, the desire to come together, which you can see here, where faces of almost every color congregate each day.

Until now, it was impossible to impart this scene to Paul, even as we PhD-seekers mingled with the motorcycle leather beneath the I-90 overpass in Syracuse. One of the core academic assumptions of the mid-1990s was that Birmingham's history would always keep us, white and black, apart.

The waiter greets me with a smile. I return the word. He turns to look Paul over, then asks him, "You ready to eat some ribs, little man?"

Paul's thin. And, as we say, he's not from around here. Somehow the waiter sees that. Maybe it's in our body language: I'm already relaxed by the scent of the smoke. Paul's still looking for the menu, something to hold in his hands, while I imagine everyone else can recite the sign over the bar:


Maybe the waiter can hear it—Birmingham, barbecue—in my voice.

As academics, Paul and I are brothers in arms. But the waiter and I, in this moment he offers me, are barbecue brothers. We speak the same language. Whatever our history tells us, however much it may remind us of our separations, our language—our tongues—bring us together.

Maybe it's only for a moment, a meal. But a meal is a promise, as it is a blessing. This is where we gather. This is where we all go to church.

Jake Adam York is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Persons Unknown.

Barbecue Mentors, Vol. 1: Henry Perry

From the sauce-stained keyboard of guest blogger Robert Moss. 

An important facet of barbecue history is the role that a few prominent cooks played as barbecue mentors, not just training a new generation of cooks but also helping to define and spread the signature style of a region.

In Kansas City, that figure was Henry Perry. Born near Memphis, Tennessee, Perry arrived in Missouri in 1907. He found work as a saloon porter, but on the side he started selling ribs from a stand in an alley off of Bank Street. At the time, the city's street corners were dotted with barbecue stands, most of them informal businesses housed in improvised structures like retired street cars.

As Perry's business grew, he became a full-time restaurateur, eventually moving into a converted trolley barn at 19th and Highland Streets and declaring himself the city's "barbecue king."

"There is only one way to cook barbecue," Perry insisted, "and that is the way I am doing it, over a wood fire, with properly constructed oven and pit." Perry taught this technique to the city's next generation of barbecue men. Charlie Bryant, for example, learned the ropes at Perry's place before setting out and opening his own stand . Charlie's brother Arthur took over in 1946 and ended up moving the operation to a new location, where, as Arthur Bryant's, it remains one of the world's best-known barbecue restaurants.

A 1915 newspaper advertisement draws the hungry masses to the Barbecue King.

Arthur Pinkard got his start working for Perry, too, and eventually built the local Gates Bar-B-Q empire with the help of business partners George and Arzelia Gates.

Perry passed on his sauce recipe to his proteges, though they adapted it over the years. "Old Man Perry and my brother used to make his sauce way too hot," Arthur Bryant remembered, and he toned it down to create his own signature version.

This informal apprenticeship system helped create the various distinctive regional barbecue styles that developed in the 20th century. If you're looking for the roots of Kansas City style, you've got to go back to Henry Perry, the original KC Barbecue King.