First in Barbecue Editors, Too

Yesterday’s New York Times had a story about a Texas magazine that recently hired a Barbecue Editor. It’s an interesting piece, but one does get the impression from reading it that the Texans invented the job and that nobody had ever thought to do it before them.

The Times article says that the position “exists at no other magazine in America,” which may be technically true, but I’d like to point out that there was a Barbecue Editor in North Carolina more than 15 years ago. In 1996, the North Carolina Literary Review named poet and English professor William Harmon as its Barbecue Editor, a position that attracted some attention at the time, most notably from News & Observer columnist Dennis Rogers who lamented that he was passed over for the position.

Harmon wasn’t the only one to wax poetic about our state’s finest culinary offering. James Applewhite’s 1983 poem “Barbecue Service” is, in my opinion, the finest piece of literature yet written about barbecue. And as I wrote here in 2006, barbecue has even found its way into our state’s leading history journal, with an excellent piece on barbecue culture in eastern North Carolina and a call for more academic study of the topic.

Not to pick on our friends in Texas, but the barbecue editor position at Texas Monthly, at least as described by the Times, sounds more like a barbecue critic, charged with seeking out and reviewing restaurants around the state. In other words, the same thing that Bob Garner has been doing for WUNC-TV and in print for nearly twenty years. When the Texas editor gets around to writing a book about barbecue, he’d be advised to model it after the excellent Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, published a few years ago by UNC Press, which combines a scholarly and popular approach to the subject.

We don’t begrudge our neighbors in other states their own culinary traditions, but in North Carolina we take talking and writing about barbecue almost as seriously as we do eating it.

12 thoughts on “First in Barbecue Editors, Too”

  1. A splendid assertion of our continuing priority. Well done. When I wrote Elizabeth Hudson at Our State to ask if they are going to let Texans beat us at our own game I hadn’t thought about all this. Nevertheless, she ought to hire a barbecue editor immediately and pretend that she had one all the time. I suggest Chapel Hillian Dan Levine, proprietor of bbqjew.com, whose taste is impeccable.
    By the way, thanks for plugging Holy Smoke. Sometime, off-line, I’ll tell you where the inspiration came from.

  2. P.S.
    I shared this with a barbecue-loving friend who says you’re too nice and that people who call pork a “side” should be abused.

  3. Mr. Reed – I thought the inspiration for Holy Smoke came from the great Legends of Texas Barbecue. Of course many important epiphanies about barbecue have originated in Texas. Yes, we like our beef, but the Lone Star State is no one-trick-pony when it comes to barbecue. That’s why I’m able to enjoy a side of pork (ribs and chops in this case) with my brisket, beef sausage and shoulder clod.

    In a brief respite from the chest-thumping, I’ve enjoyed Holy Smoke and Bob Garner’s book immensely, and they’ve been my go-to sources for the trip I’m planning to NC and SC in April. I’m coming in disguise.

    Mr. Graham – If you could kindly allow enough time for a complete reading of the article that you’re commenting on, you’d see that I’ve “gotten around to” writing that book. The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue will be published in May. You can pre-order a copy here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Prophets-Smoked-Meat-Barbecue/dp/0062202928

  4. Well, so much for my reading comprehension skills. I must have been racing off to the stacks in search of barbecue literature and completely missed the reference to Daniel Vaughn’s forthcoming book. I’m planning to get a copy so that I can learn exactly what “shoulder clod” is. I’m pretty sure it’s a kind of fish.

    Mr. Vaughn, when you do visit, you’d only need to come in disguise if you plan on writing that you can make good barbecue without cooking it over real wood. We’d be glad to see you here in Chapel Hill, which is either, depending on your perspective, a neutral ground in the great Eastern- vs. Western-style debate, or a wasteland filled with transplants who don’t know anything about barbecue.

    In the meantime, we wish you luck with your new job, and hope that it, and the attention you’ve received, will remind the magazines and journals in our state that our appetite for reading good writing about barbecue remains as strong as ever.

  5. I am an ardent supporter of all wood cooking, and my itinerary is planned around that fact. I feel that I must at least make a stop at Smithfield’s if only to see how the chains treat NC BBQ.

    Thank you for the well wishes, and good luck in getting Dan Levine a full time editor job in your neck of the woods.

  6. Ah, um, yes, Mr. Vaughn, it is true that Dale and I decided to write HOLY SMOKE after reading our pal Robb Walsh’s LEGENDS OF TEXAS BARBECUE. That’s another instance where y’all did something we here in North Carolina should have thought of first. I readily acknowledge your superior PR skills. Truth is, I even like your “barbecue”; I just wish you’d call it something else, to prevent confusion.
    Seriously, we have a grandchild in Austin and a Texas son-in-law who has taken our education as his special charge. I deeply admire Texans’ commitment to wood-cooking and your pride in your heritage. One point of HOLY SMOKE was that we here could use more of both.
    We suggested, basically, that Tar Heels should enjoy our eastern-piedmont civil war, but join hands when appropriate against barbecue barbarians from beyond the pale like (excuse me) y’all. I’d love to see a similar alliance of convenience between us and you against gas-cookers, International House of Barbecue chains, and the Kansas City heresy that barbecue is about sauce. We could call it the Tar Heel-Texas Axis. Memphis could be Italy.
    I’m going to go preorder your book right now, and another copy for our son-in-law. Good luck with your new job, which I envy. If you have a moment to spare when you do your April reconnaissance, get in touch.

  7. I guess we are geographically disposed to consider our two versions of barbecue the most important. If the KC and Memphis styles were in contention they might have spread beyond the city limits.

    I wouldn’t miss a chance to meet a man of your barbecue stature. I’ll be in NC on 4/10 (east) and 4/11 (west) and based in Raleigh both nights. You can contact me at prophetsofsmokedmeat@gmail.com

  8. I’ve just kicked your question to the former editor of NCLR, who will have the answer. My recollection is that at one time there were 2 or 3 barbecue editors, although they didn’t actually write anything.
    Check your in-box for an email from me about your visit to our parts.

  9. Bill Harmon was introduced as barbecue editor of NCLR in the 1996 issue, which also includes the inimitable Jonathan Williams’ review of Ridgewood, “The True, Only, and Most Secret Entrance to Hog Heaven” and the disturbing “Smoke, Hog-Wild Hauling,” by Jake Grant, which for Mr. Vaughn will describe how we treat hogs before they become ‘cue. Not necessarily nice, but not often a part of our dialog. (One off-stage element of Jim Applewhite’s fine poem is the hog that’s the essential sacrament in “Barbecue Service” was raised & butchered by family, not factory; they knew what the pig ate.) What we sometimes thought of as the ‘cue issue of NCLR wound up being my last; my successor, Tom Douglass, edited the 1997 issue and continued the barbecue editor position. Bill wrote a third essay, intended for the 1998 issue, that was perhaps too outrageous a thing to be published. In it, among other things, he carries on a message machine interview (perhaps imagined) with Stanley Fish, I think it was, in which he tries to get Fish to respond to queries about ‘cue and the ‘cue series of books that Duke UP was then publishing, though in the end we discover that the ‘cue Fish is interested in is really Q, as in Queer theory.
    Naming Bill as barbecue editor resulted, by the way, in the first mention of NCLR by the News & Observer, which for five years had pretended that we did not exist. I told staff that naming a ‘cue editor would get us that mention, but when Dennis Rogers called to complain about not being offered the position, I told him that one of our ulterior motives for naming a ‘cue editor was so we might get mentioned in the New York Times, a trick I see now has worked quite nicely for Texas Monthly.
    I too look forward to Daniel’s book and I hope that he goes to Smithfield only after he has had his fill of Cobb’s, where (in Farmville) I would be glad to buy for him a pound of red oak-cooked ‘cue.

  10. A couple of years ago I visited your Queen City on business. Late one afternoon I stopped a young police officer and asked where I could find some good barbecue. She shrugged and said, “I can’t think of anyplace.”

    It was sad. I can assure you that would never happen in Austin, San Antonio, Lockhart, Muleshoe or my hometown, Fort Worth. We take our barbecue seriously here.

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