In memory of Dale Volberg Reed, who passed away in October, we are reprinting this 2008 interview with her and her co-authors of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, John Shelton Reed and William McKinney.
Q: How did two Tennesseans (John and Dale) and a South Carolinian (William) get the nerve to write a book about North Carolina barbecue? What qualifies you to write on the topic?
Dale: Well, John and I are originally from just over the line in Tennessee and we’ve lived in North Carolina since 1969—and I was at Duke before that. But you’re right: we’re not Tar Heels born and Tar Heels bred. As we say in the introduction to the book, we’re converts to North Carolina barbecue, but like many converts we can be more Catholic than the Pope. Because we didn’t grow up with it, we don’t take North Carolina barbecue for granted.
John: We also argue—I don’t know how successfully—that our origins give us some measure of impartiality in the Eastern Piedmont, tomato vs. no-tomato, whole-hog vs. shoulder wars. It’s not our heritage that’s at stake.
William: On the South Carolina front, I’ll freely admit to being fond of mustard-based barbecue—really fond of it. But the intensity of interest in barbecue and respect for it that you find in North Carolina doesn’t exist where I come from. Good barbecue places in South Carolina will carry Eastern-style sauce, but North Carolina shops don’t need mustard-based sauce. In fact, it would be weird if you found it in a North Carolina barbecue joint.
Q: How is Holy Smoke organized?
John: You could call it Trinitarian. The first part is history (starting with the Iliad—no kidding) and what you might call “lore.” We talk about the role of barbecue and barbecues in the life of the state, and the rise of barbecue restaurants in the twentieth century. The second part of the book tells how to cook barbecue at home, and gives the history of the canonical side dishes—slaw, cornbread, Brunswick stew, and other things you’ll find on the menus of North Carolina barbecue places. (We’ve got some good recipes, too.) The last third or so is made up of interviews William did with a dozen or so representative “barbecue men” (and one woman—Debbie Bridges, from Shelby). These are folks who cook barbecue for a living, and they talk about their craft, and their businesses, and their lives. We conclude with a sort of coda about the future of North Carolina barbecue, why it may be an endangered cuisine, and why that matters.
Q: How did this project come to be?
Dale: John and I have admired and cooked from a book called Legends of Texas Barbecue by Robb Walsh ever since we came across it. We were talking one day with David Perry [then editor-in-chief at UNC Press] and found out that he liked it, too. Someone—we don’t remember who—said, “You know, there really needs to be a book like that about North Carolina barbecue.” John and I looked at each other and knew what our next book was going to be. We wrote a proposal for David and the Press bought it.
John: It turned out that we’d been getting ready to write this book for a long time, without knowing it. We’d been eating barbecue all over the state—and, for that matter, out-of-state, from San Francisco to London—for decades. We’d studied Bob Garner’s and Jim Early’s books on North Carolina barbecue—in fact, we had them in our car, and had done things like driving from Chapel Hill to Goldsboro for lunch. I’d been a judge at the Memphis in May barbecue competition and had written about that. I’d spoken about the cultural importance of barbecue at a meeting of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and I’d written a few magazine columns on the subject. We knew enough to know that it would take a whole encyclopedia to deal with barbecue in general, but that it might be barely possible to write a single book about North Carolina. We knew that William had already done those interviews, as a project for the SFA, so we asked him if he’d join us.