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New barbecue campaign supports cooking over wood

By Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

It must be serious. It has a T-shirt and everything.

Still, knowing John Shelton Reed – retired professor of sociology at UNC Chapel Hill, highly respected author of Southern history books and passionate defender of Southern culture – I open my interview with the most logical question:

“Reed, are you out of your ever-loving mind?”

After he stopped laughing, he acknowledged the fairness of my question: “I’m retired – I got time to make trouble.”

The trouble Reed wants to make, along with his co-conspirator, blogger Dan Levine of the website BBQ Jew, is called the Campaign for Real Barbecue, aimed at protecting that endangered art, barbecue that is cooked over wood.

Not to be confused with the N.C. Barbecue Society, which has a Wall of Fame to acknowledge authentic North Carolina barbecue restaurants, Reed and Levine’s campaign is about finding and celebrating restaurants that cook completely over wood.

“Dan and I feel strongly,” Reed says. “Wood-cooked barbecue is in danger.”

Reed reached out to me because of a project I did a couple of years ago, when I wrote about the pressures on restaurants that still cook barbecue the authentic way, over coals burned down from wood, mostly oak or hickory. It’s tough to cook that way and still produce enough food to run a restaurant and turn a profit. The number of places that do it, like Lexington Barbecue in Lexington or Kyle Fletcher’s in Gastonia, is dwindling. But purists feel strongly that the definition of barbecue is meat cooked slowly over wood coals.

Reed’s barbecue campaign was inspired by the Campaign for Real Ale in England, a battle against factory brewing.

“We want people to have a fairly reliable source when they want to know where to get real barbecue,” Reed says. “And by honoring the people who do it right, we hope to encourage it.”

Their plan is to certify restaurants that continue to cook the old-school way, and give them a framed plaque they can display to prove it. At, you can buy T-shirts, bumper stickers, decals, aprons and the like, with various slogans to show your support. At, you’ll eventually be able to find lists of restaurants, along with a pledge you can take to support true barbecue and become a “smokes-person.”

Eventually, Reed and Levine hope to go nationwide with this campaign, to find and support wood-cooking restaurants from Texas to Chicago. They also would like to add a list of community barbecues that do it “from scratch,” such as Scout troops and volunteer fire departments.

Now, barbecue is a subject that tends to inspire heated debate. Reed knows that well. He and his wife, Dale Reed, are the authors of the book “Holy Smoke,” about North Carolina’s barbecue culture.

He swears, though, that he wants to keep the campaign positive, and focus on praise for those who stick with the old ways.

“We're not going to name and shame gassers (restaurants that cook over gas or electricity),” he says. “But they know who they are and they know what they can do about it. It's never too late to be saved.”

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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