John Shelton Reed: Busting a Barbecue Myth

Barbecue: a Savor the South® cookbook, by John Shelton ReedWe welcome to the blog a guest post by John Shelton Reed, author of Barbecue: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook. Reed’s Barbecue celebrates a southern culinary tradition forged in coals and smoke. Since colonial times southerners have held barbecues to mark homecomings, reunions, and political campaigns; today barbecue signifies celebration as much as ever. In a lively and amusing style, Reed traces the history of southern barbecue from its roots in the sixteenth-century Caribbean, showing how this technique of cooking meat established itself in the coastal South and spread inland from there. He discusses how choices of meat, sauce, and cooking methods came to vary from one place to another, reflecting local environments, farming practices, and history.

In a previous post, Reed shares a surprising cocktail recipe reminiscent of a Southern backyard barbecue. In today’s post, Reed shares the most important ingredient in barbecue and the myths surrounding it.


In 2013 Dan Levine and I founded the Campaign for Real Barbecue, to promote the Southern tradition of wood-cooked barbecue. We have been working to identify and applaud those barbecue places that still cook in the old-school way, to encourage new “artisanal” wood-cooking barbecue establishments, and to persuade gas-cookers to return to the True Faith. Our website,, asserts, “Good barbecue can’t be cooked entirely with gas or electricity. Wood smoke is what makes Real Barbecue. And good barbecue cooked entirely with wood is the gold standard by which all others are judged.”

Unfortunately, many “barbecue” restaurants have stopped cooking with wood, or never did. This sorry condition seems to be especially advanced in North Carolina. Outsiders are starting to notice, and our state’s longstanding reputation for barbecue excellence has begun to suffer. Lolis Eric Elie, the author of Smokestack Lightning, remarked recently that “there are far more gas and electric pits [in the Carolinas] than in other parts of barbecue country,” and called it “a disturbing trend that needs to be reversed.” The late Bob Kantor, who cooked with wood on Haight Street in San Francisco at Memphis Minnie’s, professed himself “puzzled and deeply concerned at what appears to be a trend in North Carolina towards substituting gas and electric for wood.” And Jim Shahin, barbecue columnist for the Washington Post, has observed, “Gas has made many inroads into North Carolina barbecue and the authentic wood-only barbecue there is in some jeopardy.” I could go on.

It’s true that cooking with gas or electricity is cheaper and easier, and the product is more consistent (if not great). But when we ask gassers why they don’t cook with wood, they seldom mention those considerations. Instead, what we almost always hear is stuff like “The city won’t let us,” or “The inspector made us stop,” or “It’s against the Clean Air regulations.” In short, the government made them do it.

But this never comes with specifics. No one has ever been able to tell us exactly what regulations make it impossible. In fact, the only regulations we’ve actually seen in print require that if meat is sold in grocery stores and labeled “barbecue,” it must be cooked with wood. Nobody expects governments to be consistent, but why would they turn around and forbid barbecue to be wood-cooked when it’s sold in restaurants? (And why would wood-fired pizza ovens get a pass?)

So, in the April 23, 2014, issue of the Raleigh News and Observer, we issued the (fanfare, please) True ‘Cue Challenge. We offered a handsome “No Faux ‘Cue” apron to the first person to identify (1) any statute or regulation that forbids any North Carolina barbecue restaurant to cook with wood or charcoal, or (2) any official—federal, state, county, or municipal—who has made a North Carolina barbecue restaurant stop cooking with wood or charcoal, or who has forbidden one to start. “If there really are laws or regulations that make life difficult for wood-cooking barbecue restaurants,” we wrote, “we will work to change them. If there really are bureaucrats undermining our state’s barbecue heritage, the Campaign will reason with them—and, if reason does not suffice, we will denounce and vilify them.”

Several people got in touch to thank us for what we’re doing, and one man wanted to argue that his gas-cooked pork is as good as the genuine article (it’s not). But no one even tried to meet the challenge. When no one had claimed the prize after a year, we upped the reward to include a True ‘Cue ball cap.

Going on two years later, the Challenge still stands, cheered by sympathetic observers elsewhere. Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly, has weighed in with “Barbecue Fallacy: The Grandfather Clause,” and Robert Moss wrote an article in the Columbia Free Times called “The Myth of Health Departments, Wood Cooking and Grandfathering.” Like us, these writers are convinced that any restaurant anywhere can cook barbecue with wood if it really, really wants to.

John Shelton Reed lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Cofounder of the Campaign for Real Barbecue (, his many books include Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, coauthored with Dale Volberg Reed. His book, Barbecue: a SAVOR THE SOUTH® cookbook, is now available. Don’t forget to “like” the Savor the South page on Facebook for more news and recipes.