BBQ&A: Bob Garner, North Carolina Barbecue Legend

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 Continue reading

Greatest Hits: BBQ&A with Jim Early, NC Barbecue Society Founder

[Note: This is a re-post of an interview originally posted in April 2010. Follow this link--Early BBQ&A--for an easier to read .pdf version of the interview.]

Jim Early is a good old fashioned barbecue renaissance man.  A native of Henderson, NC, Early graduated from Wake Forest University law school and practiced as an attorney for many years.  His bio notes that, “In addition to being an avid and accomplished hunter, fisherman, and gourmet cook, he also rides and brokers Tennessee walking horses, breeds and trains English Setters and Pointers, flies with his friends in hot air balloons and WWII war birds, restores British cars and classic Chris Craft mahogany speed boats, paints, writes, plays in bands and loves to dance.”

While the above hobbies and accomplishments are interesting in their own right, most relevant to this website is the fact that Early founded the North Carolina Barbecue Society (NCBS).  In 2007, he left his law practice to focus solely on NCBS, which has a mission “to preserve North Carolina’s barbecue history and culture and to secure North Carolina’s rightful place as the Barbecue Capital of the World.”

In addition to founding NCBS, Early authored The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: Manteo to Murphy, which remains the most comprehensive guidebook of NC barbecue joints (and retains a prime spot in my car’s glove box).  He has also authored a cookbook, leads business retreats, and makes presentations on work-life balance and stress reduction.  Recently we added to Early’s stress by asking him a book’s worth of questions, which he was kind enough to answer.

BBQ Jew: In researching The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: Manteo to Murphy, you visited all 100 counties in North Carolina and ate at 228 restaurants.  How long did this field research take and what did you learn from the experience?
Jim Early: How I went about doing the field research for The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: Manteo to Murphy is described on pages 17-20 of the book.  I wanted the research to be current and I pushed myself as hard as I possibly could to practice law 14-15 hours a day Monday through Thursday and drive to the area I was going to work and work 18 hour days Friday and Saturday in the field.  Sunday morning I ate my first meal since Thursday and drove home to do 6-7 hours dictation and crash.  This was my life for 6 months plus in 2001.  Then I wrote the book and went through all the publishing hoops, distribution hoops, etc.  The whole process was about 4,000 hours, 22,000+ miles, 2,000+ people, 100 counties and 228 BBQ places.  To my knowledge no one else has done a BBQ guide book that is this complete, this  well  researched  and invested the time that I invested to complete the project.  I learned that that there was a reason no one else had done such a project.  The price is higher than most people are willing to pay.  I have written several cook books and numerous magazine articles since I wrote The Best Tar Heel Barbecue, but they have been a walk in the park compared to the efforts I put into that book.

Some of the things I learned from the field research are that there are, to my knowledge, less than 30 old fashioned family owned BBQ places in NC that cook over pits fueled with live wood coals or charcoal and Continue reading

BBQ&A: Joe Kwon, Musician and (Food) Groupie

Joe Kwon is the high octane cellist (eat your heart out, Yo-Yo Ma) for the Avett Brothers, a North Carolina-based band that has steadily grown its reputation and commercial success over the past few years.  It is perhaps no coincidence that the Avetts reached new levels of success following Kwon joining the band in 2007 for a tour and album called Emotionalism.  When he is not on stage, you’ll find Kwon settling in at restaurant tables across the United States, a foodie hobby he chronicles on his well-written and even better photographed blog, Taste on Tour.  A resident of Durham, Kwon agreed to an interview with me after I saw an article in the Independent Weekly about him eating barbecue at nearby restaurant, The Pig.  Read on to see Kwon discuss why kimchi would pair well with a BBQ sandwich, life on the road with the Avett Brothers, and the importance of supporting local agriculture. If you’d prefer to download a .pdf of this interview, click here.

 BBQJew:  Tell me about your upbringing. Where did you grow up and what brought you to North Carolina?
Joe Kwon: I was born in Inchon, South Korea and moved to Archdale, NC back in 1981. Archdale, NC is practically in the middle of nowhere but it was near my extended family, in particular my aunt. It was her convincing that brought my family to the states. Growing up, we had weekly family dinners with over 20 extended family members eating traditional Korean food and just playing around with other family members. I had several cousins near my age and this was a time for all of us to get together and be close. Those family dinners were definitely the starting point of my love for food.

BBQJew:  What specific role did food play in your childhood? What about music? Do you see any parallels between the two
JK: As I mentioned above about the role of food, it was always around for family dinners. We ate so much food at these dinners because they were almost always potluck style and each family would bring at least two dishes. It was almost as if you knew who had the best of each dish as well. I remember one of my aunts always making the egg rolls and the tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets) and my mom making all sorts of kimchis and sweet and sour pork (Korean style). There was always a plethora of food to be eaten and sampled.

My parents were both musicians. My sisters both played piano, and I was going to play music no matter what. I really didn’t have a choice in the matter. When I was 3 my mom tried to teach me piano. I probably was too ADD to sit still at that age because she didn’t press it hard enough for me to continue playing. When I turned 9 though I showed up at my first cello lesson and it’s all history from there.

I guess the biggest parallel is that music soothes the soul just the same way food does. As a classical musician you work really hard to get a piece Continue reading

BBQ&A: Sam Suchoff, The Pig Chef-Owner

Sam Suchoff is not your typical pit boss.  But then The Pig is not your typical barbecue joint. Indeed, Suchoff has a damn near disturbing range of culinary experience for a barbecue cook.  More to the point, much of the fare he serves at The Pig veers away from North Carolina barbecue tradition with menu items like brisket, tamales, kielbasa and, yes, even country fried tofu. 

Veering away from tradition is not necessarily a bad thing because many traditional North Carolina barbecue joints offer little on their menus worth sampling beyond the holy trinity of barbecue, slaw and hushpuppies (which, to be fair, is not necessarily a bad thing either).  Suchoff offers a wide-ranging, pork-centric menu, but he respects the tradition of whole hog barbecue and that reverence is evident along with his creativity. 

In a recent interview, Suchoff was kind enough to share with me the reasons he cooks with an electric smoker, why barbecue is the dish he’s most proud of cooking despite all the variety on his menu, and why vegetarianism is an easy way to get girls (at least in L.A.).  Follow this link to read the interview.

BBQ&A: Rick & Ryan of The North Carolina Barbecue Company

Rick Scott and Ryan Pitz teamed up to form The North Carolina Barbecue Company, a mail order business established “to deliver to doorsteps across the country the unique culinary culture of our great state.”  The North Carolina Barbecue Company is unique in offering both Eastern and Piedmont/Lexington-style ‘cue and slaw for delivery.  Recently I sat down (at my laptop) and interviewed Rick and Ryan about how they got into the barbecue business, battle boxes, and why mail order hush puppies are an elusive goal.

Follow this link to read the interview with Rick and Ryan. (Or if you are hungry already, just click on over to their online order page.)

BBQ&A: Thomas Morris (aka Another_Q_Lover), BBQ Eater, Judge, Reviewer & Cooker

I met Thomas Morris, aka Another_Q_Lover, at the Twin City RibFest in Winston-Salem this past summer.  As we waited to judge the rib cooking competition, Morris agreed to sit down (well, he was sitting down already so that part didn’t take much convincing) and answer some of my disjointed questions.  We talked about his decades of experience eating, cooking, writing about and most recently judging North Carolina barbecue.  Morris is originally from Ohio but since moving to the Tar Heel state 30 years ago he’s ingested enough pork to have more than earned his state citizenship and, for what little it’s worth, my respect (he has been eating NC barbecue longer than I have, after all).  Without further ado, here’s Another_Q…

Follow this link to read the interview with Thomas Morris/Another_Q_Lover.

BBQ&A: James Villas, Writer and Cookbook Author

A self-described “Southerner by birth and temperament and appetite,” James Villas has given the people of his native North Carolina many reasons to be proud over the years.  His latest cookbook, Pig: King of the Southern Table, is perhaps the most significant reason yet.   Tarheels and tarheels at heart will be wowed by Pig’s wide-ranging collection of recipes, which describe how to cook every part of the pig one could ever imagine wanting to eat (and then some). 

Long before penning his culinary ode to North Carolina’s favorite animal, Villas received his PhD in Romance Languages and Comparative Literature and served a stint as a university professor.  Soon he left academia to follow his heart/stomach (they are one and the same after all) into the world of food writing.  Villas spent the next 27 years of his life as Food and Wine Editor of Town & Country magazine.  In addition, he has written for Esquire, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Life, and The New York Times, and published a baker’s dozen of cookbooks, two novels, and a memoir.  Mr. Pig himself was kind enough to chat with us about biscuits, barbecue and his heart-wrenching (for us readers) decision to never write another cookbook focused on swine.  Enjoy…

Follow this link to read the interview with James Villas.

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