It doesn’t strike me until much later how metaliteral it is to observe Rien Fertel and Denny Culbert barbecue a whole hog. They take turns shoveling wood coals into an ad hoc pit made of stacked brick, iron grating and a sheet of weathered tin for a cover. Fertel gets on his knees with a shovel-full of irradiated coals, sliding them under the hidden hogs through a portcullis cut out of the brick fortress walls.
“You want to hear the sound of barbecue?” he asks, and beckons me the ground. It’s a blissful tune. A sizzle here and crackle there as the pork fat sparks the flame, set against a fugue of white noise from the burning wood.
“This is the first time I’ve done this and I’ve watched it being done for hours, countless hours. Enough to write a book,” he laughs. “Within 55 minutes I was getting really nervous. Are we doing this right?” I am Fertel’s gadfly — a hanger-on to his maiden voyage as a pit master. In his new book, The One True Barbecue, Fertel plays the exact role I play here with an unknown pantheon of not-so-legendary pit masters. The book chronicles his travels, often accompanied by photographer Culbert, through America’s forgotten highways and ashen-work barbecue stops in Tennessee and the Carolinas. He inserts himself into the prosaic work of everymen, turning a reporter’s aggrandizement on what is the reality of other men’s lives. But where other reporters and food writers revel in the role of the observer, Fertel’s book captures the often awkward role of the culinary interloper.
“I had two guys say, both of them African-American pit masters who have been at it for over 30 years, working at white-owned establishments, ‘If I had a dollar for each one of you who came and wanted to talk to me and sit up all night long, I could buy my own restaurant,’” Fertel tells me.
A Tulane-educated doctor of history, Fertel patches together a keen social history of the South, with a backdrop of racism, poverty and cultural hopelessness integrating what otherwise would be an anthology of how-to-barbecue vignettes. While the mostly black, male pit masters alone are worthy character studies, Fertel’s sensitivity to the often unjust origins of the hogman’s trade becomes a subtle centerpiece to what otherwise excels as a fine piece of observational food journalism.
His conversations with tragic Tennessee barbecue genius Ricky Parker glow with perfunctory affection, using his genuine concern for the man as a narrative reprise throughout. Fertel’s relationship with Parker, an alcoholic, James Beard-celebrated braggart and pit master, etches the book’s emotional keystone. Sure, Fertel is a stranger in a strange land, but he has a gift for crossing the divide.
At no point in the book, rife with literary allusion and hyper-detailed scholarship, does Fertel forget himself. All too often, culinary adventurers shed the pretense of observation in an effort to demonstrate a gift for cultural immersion. Fertel’s yarns unfold terminally aware of the loquacious absurdity of food-writing. He takes frequent detours to deprecate his proselytizing.
“This all sounds like a bunch of hogwash, hyperbole written for a laugh,” he writes. “But of course all barbecue writing is hyperbole.”
That’s an astute observation from a heady observer.
Food writing in general is an absurd enterprise when taken at anything above face value. It’s an attempt to formalize or document a human sensory experience that’s so fundamentally subjective it bears little relationship to reality. While Fertel excels at capturing the burnt aroma and grease-toothed flavor of these pits, often in unflattering detail, his narrative account of racism, both institutional and disgustingly personal, grounds the chronicle in an unpleasant but fascinating reality.
Watching Fertel hack his way through a charity barbecue, waxing sociological on the nature of practice, I realize I have a lot to learn about our shared craft. For budding foodwriters, The One True Barbecue is a great place to start.
Lovers of barbecue and consumers of social history alike will find plenty to digest in the Lafayette native’s book. If nothing else, it’s a quick-reading guide to a great American culinary art — whole hog barbecue.