- Searching for the Dixie Barbecue: Journeys into the Southern Psyche
There aren't all that many books I wish I'd written, but this is one of them. Wilber "Pete" Caldwell, who lives in Gilmer County, Georgia, and has written on subjects as diverse as public architecture and cynicism, turns his attention here to barbecue, and he obviously had a really good time writing this book.
He begins with a brief essay on the history of pit-cooked meat from Prometheus onward, but concludes that barbecue is an American—specifically, a southern—invention if only because most southerners believe that barbecue isn't barbecue if it's not called barbecue. Bringing in Prometheus (and the Iliad, and Brillat-Savarin) reveals his learning—worn lightly, thank goodness, since nothing could be more dreary than a pedantic treatment of this subject, except maybe a postmodern one. (In one instance, alas, the learning is deployed carelessly: "Harleian" is not the writer of a medieval cookbook but the name of the British Library collection that includes it.) (Just showing off.)
Caldwell moves on to a series of loosely connected chapters that answer a great many fascinating questions that it hadn't occurred to me to ask. For instance:
• how barbecue manners differ from regular table manners, and when each is appropriate
• how three places in the same county can all have "the best barbecue in [the county/the state/the South/the nation/the world]," and what "world famous" might mean in that context
• why some southerners don't like Brunswick stew (because it reminds them of school cafeteria food)
• why side dishes are generally boring (because they are "designed not to distract from the main event")
• what southerners usually tell the truth about (e.g., war records, athletic achievements) and what they feel free to lie about because everyone knows they're lying (e.g., fishing, barbecue) [End Page 132]
• why everyone, black and white, knows that black barbecue and white barbecue are different, despite the fact that they're apparently not
• how "never" and "generally not" are used (as in the rule that one never serves cornbread with barbecue, except when one is serving greens with the barbecue, but one does not generally serve greens with barbecue), and what that tells us about southern thought.
In this last example I have paraphrased to avoid Caldwell's phonetic rendition of southern speech, an uncharacteristic misstep which lends an unfortunate Simon Suggs flavor to the proceedings. In general, however, he has a good ear; it lets him have fun, for example, with the names people give to barbecue sauces. He offers some of his own, like "Piney Woods Wilber's 'Let the Big Dog Eat' Georgia BBQ Sauce," and even gives the recipe for one (with a name not suitable for a family-friendly journal): it starts with a gallon each of catsup and vinegar and winds up with a quart of 10W-30 motor oil, and "Clorox Brand Bleach as needed."
Caldwell savors places like the Red Pig Barbecue in Concord, North Carolina, which used to sport its "C" health rating as a badge of honor, and he offers a useful index for calculating an establishment's "funk factor," with a base score for architectural features (e.g., +10 for no windows), adjusted for various add-ons and deductions (e.g., minus ½ point for designated handicapped parking; plus ¼ point for plastic flowers, displays of firearms, or pictures of Jesus; minus one full point if the place has a website). This doesn't just work for barbecue joints, by the way. My all-time favorite oyster place, at Bowen's Island, South Carolina, gets a damn near perfect score.
This is not all fun and games, however. Caldwell has actually done some serious—well, sort of serious—research. He reports, for example, on a survey of the side dishes served by fifty establishments. (He doesn't consider Brunswick stew a side dish: It gets its own chapter.) Nearly all serve the "holy trinity" of...