For many Tar Heels Bob Garner‘s name and face are synonomous with North Carolina barbecue. Garner is a beloved public television personality, restaurant reviewer, writer and barbecue guide book author, and all-around ambassador for our state’s food culture. Whether writing or cozying up to a TV camera, Garner’s kind and authentic southern gentleman’s personality shines through. His ability to connect with his audience and his legions of fans make him our state’s version of Al Roker or, perhaps more accurately, fellow Carolinian Charles Kuralt.
In addition to hosting and contributing to a string of popular WUNC-TV shows, Garner has appeared nationwide on the Food Network’s Paula’s Home Cookin’, featuring Paula Deen, and Food Nation with Bobby Flay; The Travel Channel’s Road Trip; and ABC’s Good Morning America. Among his writing credits are as author of North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time and Bob Garner’s Guide to North Carolina Barbecue, two indispensible books for both barbecue enthusiasts and casual fans of the divine swine. Garner has also written for Our State magazine, including a terrific multi-part series on traditional southern foods like collards, fried chicken, livermush and fish stew.
Over the past year or so, a leaner but no meaner Bob Garner somehow managed to increase his already sizable presence in North Carolina’s culinary scene. He now has to his name a nicely done website (bobgarnerbbq.com), leads culinary tours across all corners of the state, is working on a new book, and recently accepted a job as a host-cultural interpreter at The Pit restaurant in Raleigh. Recently BBQJew.com caught up with the prolific Garner about his past adventures and present exploits in the world of barbecue.
BBQJew: Describe a couple of memorable food-related experiences from your childhood. Did you grow up on barbecue or come to it later in life?
Bob Garner: I got interested in food while learning to cook over a fire in the Boy Scouts (and not being willing for the wilderness to defeat me!). I remember the first time I cooked wild game: I shot a squirrel, figured out how to clean and skin it, but then had no idea how to cook it properly. I threw it in the oven, under the broiler, and cooked it for about ten minutes, until it was brown. It was tough as shoe leather! But I eventually became a fair campfire cook, continued to cook in college and have stayed with it ever since.
Barbecue came later, when I married a farm girl from Northeastern North Carolina, whose bothers taught me to cook whole pigs. We did used to go to Bob Melton’s barbecue in Rocky Mount while I was growing up and when we visited a favorite aunt in Rocky Mount. I remember Mr. Melton hanging around the place, with that big cigar hanging out of a corner of his mouth.
BBQJew: Can you trace your love for barbecue to the experience at Melton’s or did the romance happen more subtly over time?
BG: Learning to cook those whole pigs (as a 20-something young married guy), being exposed to the incomparable aroma of the juices dripping onto the coals and being able to “pick” a pig for the first time was a life-changing revelation!
BBQJew: Your first book on barbecue, North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time, was released in 1996. You were about 50 years old at the time. How come it took 50 years to work up to such a book? Had the idea been floating around your head for awhile or did it materialize quickly?
BG: It materialized quickly when I began to do some research on NC barbecue for my work in public television and realized no one had ever pulled history and background about North Carolina barbecue together into a book. (Several others have done it since my books came out.)
BBQJew: How did you first decide to pursue barbecue writing and barbecue reporting on television as part of your career?
BG: Purely by happenstance, when I was given an assignment to do some feature stories on famous North Carolina barbecue restaurants for the program North Carolina Now, which is still running each weeknight on UNC-TV.
BBQJew: There’s some debate among self-proclaimed purists (I confess to considering myself one, at least most days of the week) about how much of the pork cooked/gassed/electrocuted in North Carolina without wood coals can really be considered “barbecue.” What’s your definition of North Carolina barbecue?
BG: Pork that is cooked slowly, with low heat, and which is served tender, juicy and properly sauced and seasoned, particularly if it is to be served on a sandwich. I am pretty much a live-coal purist myself, but I have eaten too many examples of really good barbecue that was cooked other than over live coals to be absolutely dogmatic about it. For example, I think the Smithfield’s chain serves really tasty barbecue sandwiches (at least to my taste), in which the bun, the meat, the slaw and the various textures all work together very well. I’m not sure I would order a barbecue plate there, but I sure enjoy scarfing down their BBQ sandwiches when that is the best available alternative. Ken’s Barbecue in LaGrange also serves terrific electric-pit-cooked barbecue. Don’t ask me how, but there it is…
BBQJew: That being said, do you think the powers that be (whomever they are) should go about certifying “real barbecue” to distinguish it from plain ol’ cooked pork, or is that too paternalistic?
BG: I don’t want anyone else telling me what “real barbecue” is, and I don’t want to be put into that role for someone else.
BBQJew: On a related subject, why is cooking in wood-fired pits more common in the central part of the state than down east? Back in 1996, you attributed the difference largely to the fact that easterners are an “immensely practical people” who are quick to adopt more efficient techniques whether for farming or cooking (apologies for simplifying your more refined explanation). Do you still think that’s accurate or have you reconsidered?
BG: I still think that’s pretty much the reason. Eastern farmers have continued to look for the quickest, most practical way to do almost everything, including cooking barbecue. Suburban and city dwellers in the Piedmont are more nostalgic for something from which they feel they’ve been longer-separated, I think.
BBQJew: Similarly, why do you think the traditional art of NC barbecue never spread into the mountains, despite the abundant supply of hickory and oak there (and presumably the availability of at least some hogs, though nothing near the numbers in some parts of the state)?
BG: It’s something of a mystery. Perhaps because they were more isolated and somewhat less socially advanced, preferring to stick more to themselves rather than get together with a crowd to cook a pig. (Purely speculation on my part.) Maybe they preferred to eat pigs one ham at a time, rather than all at once, providing little wooden peg legs to the pigs to keep them going as long as possible. (There used to be a song about a mountain guy and his favorite pig that went, “Yeah, he was my buddy, he was my friend; Heck, he was my supper every now and then.”)
BBQJew: Speaking of tradition, what aspects of today’s NC’s barbecue culture do you think are thriving and what aspects are weak?
BG: Young people are surprisingly fond of barbecue and of holding onto the tradition. Most barbecue cooks and restaurateurs, however, don’t know anything about the history of their own product, though, and few really care that much about learning.
BBQJew: Some folks would argue that the golden age of NC barbecue was in the 19th century, when barbecue was the center of much political, agricultural and social life. Some might point to the early 20th century, when barbecue stands began to pop up around courthouses, tobacco markets, and so on. Others might argue for the 1940s & ’50s when sit down restaurants and places with curb service spread across the state. Some might even say the resurgence of barbecue today–between the number of new restaurants and the thriving competition circuit–represent a golden age. What’s your opinion, oh wise one?
BG: I wouldn’t argue for one specific “golden age,” and I think barbecue continues to be re-defined and re-positioned as society changes, because it just plain satisfies some innate need to have something to do with meat cooked over fire. You might say today is a golden age because more people than ever before have read about barbecue traditions, have experimented with barbecue personally and have benefited (or have been influenced, at least) in some way from an insatiable demand for material about barbecue in books and magazines and on TV programs.
BBQJew: Your 2002 book, Bob Garner’s Guide to North Carolina Barbecue, occupies a special place in my heart (and my glovebox); I consult it often. In researching the book, in which you review 100 of the state’s best barbecue joints, how many joints did you actually visit? How long did it take you to do that noble work and how many pounds of pork would you guess you consumed in the process?
BG: I visited every last one of them. It took about a year, much of it crammed into the final few months before the deadline (I’m embarrassed to admit), and I consumed enough pork to give me some temporary problems: no idea exactly how much. I still didn’t get sick of it, though.
BBQJew: Once the book was published, how much feedback did you get on joints you “should have” included or “should not have” listed? I know that people get very passionate about their favorite joints.
BG: Actually, not as much as you might have imagined. It’s nearly impossible for a place to be really, really good and not rise, like cream, to the surface. The difficulty was deciding which so-so places to include and which to exclude. (And a lot of that has to do with people’s memories, associations, traditions and so forth, rather than the actual quality of the barbecue.) There are some absolutely average places that are revered because people have happy memories of growing up eating barbecue there, whether with their families, on dates, etc. They claim, “Oh, it has the best barbecue I’ve ever had,” and I just scratch my head in puzzlement.
BBQJew: I won’t ask you to name names on the list of overhyped barbecue joints. Instead, tell me about a couple-few of your favorite memories as you criss-crossed North Carolina for your barbecue books and TV shows?
BG: One was watching the late former governor, Bob Scott, pick a pig on cue for a TV special, devouring the barbecue with obvious gusto for the cameras. (I also had fun cooking with my youngest son, Everett, on that show: “A North Carolina Pig Pickin’.”) One was having Paula Dean tell me (in the very first words out of her mouth to me), “I want to wrap my mouth around yo’ pig.” And one was having hundreds of Duke students beg for ice-cold leftover food – hush puppies, cole slaw, Brunswick stew – after an early morning shoot for Good Morning, America on the campus of Duke one freezing winter day. The Duke students used GMA-branded Frisbees for plates, and cleaned us out of every scrap of food we had assembled for the segment except for the pig itself. (The guy who brought the barbecued pig locked his cooker and beat a hasty retreat before the ravening hordes caught up with him.) What a grinch!
BBQJew: Okay, down to brass tacks. It’s time to put you on the spot: You can only eat at five more BBQ joints, which do you visit and why?
BG: The Pit in Raleigh, because they have not only really authentic , pit-cooked whole hog barbecue but also incredible ribs: unusual for an eastern NC barbecue restaurant.
Lexington Barbecue, because they still manage to get more flavor in their meat than any other Piedmont joint.
Bridges BBQ Lodge in Shelby, because they really know how to get meat tender, and because they serve their sauce warm.
Grady’s Barbecue in Dudley, near Mt. Olive, because I like the owners so much and because the whole hog barbecue is so authentic.
B’s Barbecue in Greenville, because I’m fond not only of their barbecue but of their barbecued chicken, and because the ladies who run it are the hardest-working women I’ve ever seen.
BBQJew: You do an excellent job capturing the feel of barbecue joints and the food they serve. What advice do you have for aspiring food writers to help them convey the right details? In particular, I am curious what tips you have for writers like myself who focus on barbecue–it is difficult to describe a food that most everyone knows and that differs in fairly subtle ways from place to place.
BG: Well, obviously finding the words to describe the subtle differences is the trick, isn’t it? I’m not sure how you pass along tips to do that, since I struggle so mightily myself.
BBQJew: Are you working on any barbecue-related projects these days, or have your retired from pork research after all these years?
BG: I have just began working for the group that owns The Pit in Raleigh, where I will serve as a sort of spokesperson and in-house curator of the barbecue tradition in North Carolina, help train the staff in barbecue history and esoterica, consult on the menu, write cookbooks, host special events, greet guests, help run food to the tables during rush times (my favorite part) and other things. I am also working on a re-versioning and combination of my two existing books into a single title, Bob Garner’s Book of Barbecue, which will have some new chapters and quite a few additions and deletions reflecting the changing landscape for authentic barbecue across the state. [Editor's note: Since interviewing Garner, The Pit has announced a series of "barbecue heritage" dinners featuring well-regarded pitmasters across the state, an early example of how Garner will be involved there.]
BBQJew: Thanks for your time, Bob, you are a gracious example of all that is right about North Carolina. Any parting words for our loyal, barbecue fanatic readers? You’ve earned the chance to have the last word.
BG: Keep the fires alive! Thanks for your interest – I’m flattered!
Filed under: BBQ & A Tagged: | Interview, Words of wisdom