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 (more…)
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