Rien Fertel spent four years on the road documenting barbecue for the Southern Foodways Alliance, which became the basis for his second book, The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog. He lives in Louisiana.
In the summer of 2008, I signed up with the Southern Foodways Alliance to study and document the history of West Tennessee’s barbecue scene. Headquartered in Memphis, I ate my fill of ‘cue, interviewed restaurant owners, and hung around pithouses. The city enjoys its fair share of barbecue oddities and outliers—barbecue spaghetti, barbecue bologna sandwiches, barbecue Cornish game hens, and dry-rubbed ribs—but most of what the city offered was a meaty monoculture of meat: smoked pork shoulders, pulled, slathered in spicy-ketchup sauce, topped with coleslaw, and sandwiched between a plain white bun.
On weekends, I’d point my car east, toward the pastoral provinces that lie between Memphis and Nashville. In the towns of Lexington and Henderson I encountered a small handful of pitmasters who smoke-roasted whole hogs using nothing but a shovel and the coals forged from a wood-fueled fire. Working with the most rudimentary of concrete-block pits, laboring in cramped quarters while immersed in smoke and live flame, these pitmasters stubbornly endeavored to keep this dying tradition—arguably the oldest of American culinary cultures—alive: cooking the whole damn hog.
I liked what I ate, but loved what I witnessed behind the scenes, in those pithouses: the brutal intensity of the labor, the tales of dedication and struggle, the biographies that reminded me of timeworn fables. I was hooked. And over the next several years I tracked down the pitmasters in the hog hotbed that is the eastern Carolinas. Here is a guide to understanding the allure of America's most unique culinary tradition.