Whole Hog Pitmaster Ricky Parker has passed

The Southern Foodways Alliance alerted us to the passing of Whole Hog BBQ legend Ricky Parker.

Mr Parker was taken far too soon from us. At 51 years of age he was still relatively young gentleman. With our country seeing a resurgence in interest and passion for BBQ, there was hope that he would be able to see a revival of a tradition he loved so dearly.

I wrote a bit about Parker HERE concerning his specific style of cooking and his preferred hog breeds.

Parker definitely wasn’t a celebrity pitmaster. He wasn’t particularly known save for a few foodies and even amongst those, very few understood exactly what he was doing and what he was preserving. When I was in college, my linguistics professor was collector of rare and dying languages. A brilliant man, he noted that we can collect data for future generations to study and make contributions to Linguistic Theory. However, any attempts to preserve dying languages are sadly futile. Regional barbecue styles are like languages. Even in its limitation of expression it can sometimes most clearly describe who we are.

Barbecue has become more popular now than ever before. Television shows, forums, Youtube videos, all point to the fact that people really care. Not only do they care they’re opening their wallets for good BBQ. Real BBQ. Parker sadly is no longer with us to see the next chapter. Hopefully he will have inspired the next generation in Western Tennessee to continue the art of whole hog cookery. Express to us the public and to themselves their heritage in the living language of smoke.

Rest in Peace Mr. Parker.

John Brown Day is Coming!!

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“His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—

it was as the burning sun to my taper light—

mine was bounded by time,

his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity.

I could live for the slave,

but he could die for him.”

 – Fredrick Douglass

This Sunday is John Brown Day over at John Brown’s Smokehouse. In a year promising to one of may firsts – this will be the first BBQ event I have ever done that featured a lecture by a Harvard Professor. Who says country cooking and academics can’t exist together?

I never particularly read up on John Brown prior to my current tenure as Whole Hog expert for JBS. As a child we’ve always been given the impression that John Brown was a necessary evil. Rational logic would not force this country to recognize her violations of the sworn creed of liberty. Slavery was the norm and it required zealous violence of a true believer to get people to start noticing. Our history books would have preferred one that was not so indiscriminate with his killings. Historians to this day debate the characterizations of John Brown – domestic terrorist? Civil rights hero? Martyr? Serial killer?

Any place naming itself after John Brown makes a statement. He’s not an easy person to like. He’s impossible to ignore. If nothing else, John Brown perhaps overturns the “flawed hero” concept. He was not a hero with flaws but his flaw and zealousness pushed him to heroic actions. It’s not a concept foreign to religion. Especially in a Judeo-Christian culture, saints and sinners are not binary figures. In contrast, all saints were sinners, the most famous of them perhaps the worst offenders.

Harvard Professors, Blues Legends, and a whole hog cook will be strange bed-fellows this weekend. I have written at length before about how North Carolina whole hog BBQ is deeply embedded with American slavery. Perhaps it won’t  be all that strange after all.

This I Believe

I am inspired by an old essay written by  Leslie Scott, co-owner of the legendary Ubon Barbecue in Yazoo City, Mississippi titled This I Believe.”

Steve Jobs shadowing Picasso said “Good artists copy but great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing good ideas”. Here’s my version.

This I Believe.

I believe in America and her unwavering commitment to liberty, freedom and the human spirit. Barbecue is America’s single native culinary creation and is the nation’s finest food.

I believe whole hog is the best barbecue. It is neither the most difficult barbecue to cook nor necessarily the most fullest flavored. It is the best barbecue because of that it represents. Unlike other cuts, it is neither thrift nor utility which gave birth to it. It represents celebration, thanksgiving and rest from toils with those most important to you. Whole hog barbecue came not from the kitchens of kings but from pits dug in the ground by slaves. Men and women who lived lives of unimaginable suffering who yet could still smile to one another as they shoveled wood embers below their next day feast.

I believe in old fashion cookery. The use of wood as the source for heat and flavor. It is not that gas and electric can not produce good tasting food. In fact cooking with gas or electric produces very consistent food. What they can not produce is romance. This is fine for burgers or pork chops, but it will never invoke the primal passion of hardwood fueled flame.

I believe in feasting. A perfectly decorated plate does not scream out family and friends. It’s a fantasy of perfection rather than the glorious imperfection of real life. Feasting comes from whole joints of meats. We tear into the same flesh and dine together on the same beast, at that moment we are family.

I believe in generosity. You can not have great barbecue without generosity. Generosity is not an action, it is a product. Generosity comes not simply from portion size but the effort, time, and passion in creating the dish. Those who are committing themselves over to the old school processes are selling generosity everyone else is simply selling smoked meat.

I believe in capitalism. I believe in the value of our nation’s ancestral barbecues. I believe that the future generations will do too and will pay for it. This will require the creativity and aggressive marketing that only capitalism can provide. Historians will not save our heritage. Our heritage will be saved by the almighty dollar because it is a worthy product and others will value it too.

Soy Sauce in Alabama Barbecue?

Cooking through Chris Lilly’s Big Bob Gibson BBQ book, you will notice the man seems to have a thing for soy sauce. It makes its appearance in marinades, as seasonings for his steak, and in his signature red barbecue sauce. In very few contexts does it use soy sauce as an “Asian” flavoring. He explains that Alabama’s been incorporating soy sauce into their beef dishes for the past half century.

This is particularly interesting as soy sauce is not a subtle flavor yet it has been blended as an ingredient in such a way by Lilly that it doesn’t overpower his dishes with an Asian accent. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the art is incorporating foreign ingredients and making it a uniquely American seasoning.

Salt Lick Barbecue in Texas also incorporates soy sauce as part of their signature mustard sauce. This is largely due to a Japanese matriarch of the joint and it’s 100% Texan. Cuban cuisine as well as Peruvian cooks have long added soy sauce as part of their flavor profiles.

Soy sauce was developed in around 2 BC in China and became actively traded all around the world by the late 1700’s. We see various types of soy sauce being used all over Asia. Japan alone has over 10 major varieties of the stuff. For the most part you can break soy sauce down into 2 major categories – DARK and LIGHT.

DARK = Sweeter, thicker, and likely to stain your meats a dark color. Better for glazes. Best not to use in injections because it stains the meat. Even for marinades, be careful how much you use.

LIGHT = Saltier, thinner, and possess more of a soy “flavoring” better or marinades, injections, and seasoning.

The big reason you can blend soy sauce into BBQ is because it’s a fermented product like Worcestershire. The process develops Glutamic acids which enhances meaty flavors. My personal favorite are the mushroom flavored soy sauce for that double punch of umamai.

I believe this is an exciting trend where more and more people in the US will begin to use soy sauce in manners that are different than how they would be used in Asia. When one thinks of Alabama BBQ you lean more towards the seasonings that are part of the general South eastern american landscape like brown sugar, ketchup etc. But now we can confidently say that soy sauce has a firm place in the barbecue profiles and it has nothing to do with Kung Pao Chicken.

Conversations with Charles Stamey – Trying Something New

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On my most recent trip to North Carolina, I had an hour and half long conversation with a mystery pitmaster at Stamey’s BBQ who turned out to be no less of an luminary than Charles Stamey himself. Charles Stamey is the grandson of the father of Lexington-style Carolina BBQ Warner Stamey and is the father of current Stamey empire head Charles (Chip) Stamey. I obviously didn’t record the conversation but we had but had some time to think through our conversation. So I’m focusing more on my reflections for the conversation rather than the conversation itself.

To see a retired gentleman shovel embers into the pits while there were much younger men surrounding us prompted the question – what are you doing here? The answer was that he was trying something new. Now it’s hard to imagine what new aspect he was working through after manning the pits for so long. Or as he puts it “took what he learned the first day and try not to screw it up for 38 years”.

I’m imagining that much of the innovation he was seeking has been the same as many of his generation have been seeking for a while. That is, how does one preserve the old tradition of cooking barbecue with embers while still maintaining or increasing margins. My clue to this was his interest in a pit I was working on inspired by my teacher Ed Mitchell. How does one create a way of cooking old school barbecue and be able to reduce labor costs?

This style of thinking is pretty common amongst the old generation pitmasters. Growing up  in the shadow of World War II, the mark of true intelligence was to maximize efficiency. How can we streamline processes, reduce costs, eliminate redundancies. You see Private Equity financiers take this to it’s ultimate morphology in modern leveraged buyouts of mature industries. This was necessary because barbecue has been a cheap product for a long long time. To give you an idea, it costs me $6.19 for a LARGE barbecue plate with slaw and hush puppies. My meal for lunch today at McDonald’s will cost no less than $8. Think about that for moment. It will cost me MORE money to get a mass produced, frozen fried patty with fries than a plate of chopped pork shoulders slowly roasted over wood embers overnight. What is shocking is that when people will squawk  at the price of BBQ if it rose to $8 and yet see no issue with spending that much at the McDonald’s drive through. 

So much of the innovation to increase margins lie largely with people’s perception of BBQ. BBQ for many people is fast food, akin to Kentucky Fried Chicken. The innovations of efficiencies have lead many older pitmasters to head the way of the gas powered smoker. Ovens which roast the meats with a tiny branch of wood for flavor. Where once people BBQ’ed with logs, many have moved to chips.

The challenge for current generation is the sell the fact that barbecue is an artisanal product. Where on the artisanal product spectrum it should sit is extremely difficult to gauge. Smoked pig is woven deep in South Eastern American life, people in North Carolina eat it once or twice a week. So it isn’t in some upper crust spectrum like rare cheeses or fine wines. Somewhere long the craft beer industry is where I see modern BBQ going. For the longest time, barbecue seemed to have been competing with the Burger Kings and Applebees of the world and it’s a losing battle. These national firms are the best at what they do. To play in the market with gas smokers will forever be a losing proposition. They have stronger economies of scale, massive buying power, and global brand recognition. It would be akin to someone entering the beer market by offering bland generic fizzy yellow beer and competing with Budweiser.

The last generation of pitmasters were not only master cooks. They were exemplars of operational efficiencies. This way of thinking though will not save old school barbecue. To compete in this world on price will always be race to the bottom. The people of the world are seeking value over price. People easily pay over $4 for a coffee drink which is close to 70% of my lunch at Stamey’s. This generation of today’s pitmasters need to innovate, not to increase margins, but to sell the public on the value of meat cooked by hand over an evening’s worth of all wood embers.