Kathleen Purvis

New book goes whole hog on Carolinas barbecue

Rien Fertel
Rien Fertel Photo by Rush Jagoe

It’s not a cookbook – it doesn’t have recipes. It’s not a travel book – it doesn’t have addresses.

Rien Fertel’s new book, “The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog” (Touchstone, $25), is something else all together: It’s a deep-dive exploration of professional barbecue, written with both passion and dispassion, and a helping of compassion for the pitmasters who give their lives to it.

What Fertel spent almost eight years exploring and writing about isn’t just barbecue. It’s whole-hog barbecue, the kind still made in pockets of the South, including rural Tennessee, Eastern North Carolina and all over South Carolina.

“I’m kind of single-minded in my pursuit of barbecue,” Fertel admits. “I romanticize whole hog, I love whole hog. Something struck me at first sight – ‘this is incredible. This, to me, is barbecue.’ 

Fertel, who lives in New Orleans, has an unusual perspective on restaurants. His grandmother, Ruth Fertel, founded the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain. His mother ran one of her restaurants, and Rien grew up in the kitchen, washing dishes and busing tables. He has no illusions about the food life.

Growing up in Lafayette, La., he had no exposure to barbecue at all. It wasn’t until 2008, when he was getting ready to start a doctoral history program at Tulane University, that he got a summer assignment from the Southern Foodways Alliance to document barbecue in and around Memphis.

He ate a lot of barbecue, and it was good. He admits that he liked barbecue, but he didn’t love barbecue. Not until he went to Siler’s Old Time BBQ in Henderson, Tenn., met his first pitmaster and saw the cooking of a whole hog.

“The fire, the smoke, the sweat equity” – it captured his writer’s mind. He realized he was seeing something very old and very special. Over the next half-dozen years, he kept pursuing it, going on road trips all over, particularly into the Carolinas.

He met people like Rodney Scott of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, S.C., and the Jones family of the Skylight Inn in Ayden. He looked at the ambitions of North Carolina’s Ed Mitchell, and at new-world barbecue made by Asian-American Tyson Ho at Arrogant Swine in Brooklyn.

And he closely studied the community life that goes on around a barbecue pit.

“Whole hog restaurants can only live organically,” he says. “A lot of times, they’re in such rural places, in towns with just a few hundred people. It’s really up to those towns to support those places.”

Fertel’s writing is lyrical and rich, but it isn’t sentimental, particularly about the daily slog and lifetimes of backbreaking work. There’s also a dose of reality about barbecue fanaticism in chapters like “Will Success Spoil Rodney Scott?” Both of those make it worth reading for anyone with deep interest in today’s barbecue world.

“I want to humanize food,” he says. “A lot of (food writers) do that well, but we’re still talking about what’s on the plate. That never interested me. I’m more interested in whose face is on the restaurant, whose work is doing the cooking.”

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis