Did Brunswick invent stew?

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I visited the Brunswick area recently to speak about barbecue history at the Firebox festival, a fun event organized by Southern Soul Barbeque in St. Simons. While I was there, I stopped by the Brunswick stew marker at the I-95 rest stop nearby and noticed something interesting: They’ve changed the inscription.

The old marker, as seen on Page 23 of "Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America," stated that the first pot of Brunswick stew was made on July 2, 1898, on St. Simons – a claim that I’ve always found charmingly suspect. First, there’s the specificity of that date. What’d they do: file for a patent? Second, people were probably making something like Brunswick stew many decades before 1898 in Brunswick County, Va., which also claims to have invented the dish. They’ve got a marker, too, also pictured on Page 23 of "Smokelore."

Well, I was looking at this photo of me taken recently at the Georgia marker and saw that the inscription now says Brunswick stew was first made in the Golden Isles during colonial days. I guess Georgia has back-dated its claim.

Whatever its origin, Brunswick stew is more likely to be served with barbecue in Georgia than anywhere else in the United States. In my view, it’s the most distinctive aspect of Georgia’s barbecue culture — the thing that sets us apart from all the other Dixie pigs you find across the South. While we were on the coast, Pam and I visited Southern Soul and discovered that it’s as good as everyone says. More to the point, they serve one of the best Brunswick stews I’ve ever tasted.

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Many thanks to Griffin Bufkin of Southern Soul for inviting me to appear at their barbecue festival. Thanks to Robert Moss, barbecue editor for Southern Living (pictured with yours truly on the grounds), who appeared with me as part of a conversation on the history of barbecue, and to Stephanie Burt, host of the podcast The Southern Fork, for moderating.

And special thanks to our hosts in St. Simons, Phil and Leslie Graitcer, who also threw a book party for me and Pam the night before the festival. The party was co-hosted by my former AJC editor Hyde Post. Several former AJCers attended, including Bert Roughton, Jingle Davis, Kevin Austin and David Davidson. It was great to see everyone. And it was great to try some exceptional Brunswick stew in a place that might not have invented it but sure acts like it. 

From Russia With Sauce

I experienced political whiplash on the barbecue trail today. It involved two very different red states. I’ll explain.

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This morning I did a 20-minute interview about "Smokelore" and the history of barbecue with Radio Sputnik, a controversial Russian government-funded broadcast operation out of Washington aimed at Americans. When Radio Sputnik first contacted me, I didn’t know what to make of it. Turns out that one of the hosts of their morning drive-time show, "Fault Lines," is a big barbecue fan and saw "Smokelore" touted by one of the authors of a popular economics blog called Marginal Revolution.

So I talked barbecue with the cohosts: Lee Stranahan (the barbecue lover) and Garland Nixon (a vegetarian). It wasn’t much different from other interviews I’ve done. Well, they were pretty interested in Bobby Seale and the way the Black Panthers used to hold barbecue fund-raisers. I pointed out that the Ku Klux Klan held them, too. It’s America, people. Anyway, thanks to the "Fault Lines" crew for a good interview.

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Three hours later, I was addressing a group of Congressional staffers over lunch at Georgia State Universit (right), part of an annual tour my alma mater puts together for the state’s delegation in Washington. Georgia, of course, is the other red state I referenced at the top because of its decidedly Republican lean in recent years. 

My lunch audience was amused to hear about Radio Sputnik. I’m amused as well. I never dreamed that in one day I’d be doing barbecue talks funded by the governments of Russia and Georgia.




Bison anyone?

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I’ve tried a lot of barbecue, but I never had barbecued bison ribs until I visited Denver this week to talk about "Smokelore" and the history of barbecue at the invitation of Colorado Humanities and culinary historian Adrian Miller (below). The event sold out, which made this Georgia boy feel very welcome.

I confess that I don’t have much about Colorado in my book. When we think of Western barbecue, we tend to concentrate on Texas and the long shadow of Kansas City, and then it’s hundreds of miles of fly-over country until you get to Santa Maria barbecue in California. But there’s a lot to see in Colorado, barbeculturally speaking.

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I talked about the Denver barbecue riot of 1898, a melee that erupted when 30,000 people showed up for a livestock show barbecue intended for 4,000. And we talked about "Daddy Bruce" Randolph, the late, beloved Denver barbecue man who fed thousands at charity dinners every Thanksgiving for years. They named a street after him.

Colorado barbecue is heavy on beef, as most Western barbecue is, with occasional forays into lamb and bison. Adrian. my host (who is working on a book about African Americans and barbecue called "Black Smoke”) took me to Roaming Buffalo, a top-ranked barbecue restaurant where the owners, Coy and Rachael Webb, served us samples of their bison ribs. They were charred and rich-tasting and made me feel like Fred Flintstone digging into dino-ribs at the that prehistoric drive-in.

The meat-fest continued at my talk, catered by Rolling Smoke BBQ of Aurora, as pit master Terry Walsh served us barbecued rack of lamb. Wow. I need to switch to smoked tofu for a few days.

Many thanks to Margaret Coval and everyone else at Colorado Humanities, to the Cheluna Brewing Co. (which hosted the event), and to Adrian, who instigated my visit and wants to build barbecue awareness in his beautiful hometown of Denver. It was a blast.



Barbecue homecoming

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I was barely 2 when my grandfather died, so I never really knew Bob Auchmutey (or "Daddy Bob," as the family called him). But I knew him by reputation, and an important part of his memory was a July 1954 article in the Saturday Evening Post titled "Dixie’s Most Disputed Dish." The story was set at the Euharlee Farmers Club barbecue, where my grandfather oversaw the pits and stew pots. I’ve mentioned it a few times since "Smokelore" was published.

   Well, Trey Gaines, the director of the Bartow History Museum, saw one of those interviews and invited me to come to Cartersville to speak. Of course, I said; it’d be like going home.

   I was expecting maybe 40 people to show up for the lecture late last week. There were more than twice that many  — so many they had to move the talk next door to the much larger auditorium in the Booth Western Art Museum.

   It was a pleasure to speak about barbecue history and my family’s connection with it in a place where some people had personal memories of my grandfather back when he ran community barbecues in the Etowah River valley. See that second photo below? I’ve always wanted to identify all the men in this portrait of Bob Auchmutey’s pit crew from about 1956. That’s my Uncle Earl on the left and Daddy Bob second from right, holding the butcher knife. I don’t know who the three others are, but I have some good leads now from people I’ve met in person and online in Bartow County. (If you think you recognize one of them, please contact me.)

   My talk in Cartersville was one of the most personal and memorable evenings I’ve spent in promoting "Smokelore." Many thanks to the Bartow History Museum, Scott’s Walk-up Bar-B-Q (a great barbecue place in Cartersville that catered the event) and the Booth Western Art Museum. I think Daddy Bob would have been proud. I’m proud of him.

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Pat Conroy and me

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I’ve owed Pat Conroy lunch for some time, so I was happy to more or less repay the debt last weekend by speaking about my barbecue history, "Smokelore," at the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, S.C. I’ll explain.

   Thirty years ago, after I wrote a series of articles about discrimination in private clubs for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I answered the phone at my newsroom desk and heard laughter. It was Conroy, then living in Atlanta and basking in the glory of his best-known novel, "The Prince of Tides," soon to be a movie starring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte. The man was at the peak of his career, and he had time to phone a reporter and tell him he liked his story.

   He was laughing because I had quoted a member of one of Atlanta’s most prestigious clubs as saying that he liked Jews OK but wouldn’t want to invite one into his home.

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   "How’d you get him to say something like that on the record?" asked Conroy, who knew the guy.

   "I called him after 5," I replied. "I think he’d begun happy hour."

   Conroy laughed again and said he’d like to take me to lunch. And so we met over a meal, the famous novelist and the unfamous reporter.

   Thirty years later, the Pat Conroy Literary Center invited me to South Carolina to speak about my new book, "Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America." Conroy died in 2016 of pancreatic cancer, and his family and admirers founded the center, a museum and institution that promotes reading and writing, as a way of continuing his passion for storytelling. I readily accepted because, well, I owed him lunch.

   It was a great weekend in the Lowcountry. The Conroy Center partnered with the Anchorage 1770 inn to host a barbecue talk and meal in their historic perch  overlooking the waterfront in downtown Beaufort. Chef Byron Landis smoked some pork, brisket, chicken and snapper and made six sauces from the book for guests to sample. I spoke while everyone nibbled and tippled. Then we signed books and aprons.

   Many thanks to the Conroy Center (Maura Connelly, Jonathan Haupt and Kathy Harvey — Pat’s younger sister), to the Anchorage 1770 (Amy and Frank Lesesne and Chef Landis) and to Debbi Covington, a Beaufort caterer and cookbook author who helped out with the meal. It was fun.

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   After the talk, there was just enough daylight left for my wife, Pam, and me to drive to neighboring St Helena Island, where Conroy is buried in a church graveyard near the Penn Center, the Gullah cultural center that was the site of many retreats and meetings during the civl rights movement. Conroy’s marker wasn’t hard to find under the branches dripping Spanish moss; his signature is engraved in the tombstone, and his plot is covered with pens and pencils and tennis balls and other tributes visitors have left. 

   As I stood there, I thought about a Conroy quote I used in "Smokelore." It comes from the mouth of Tom Wingo, the protagonist of "The Prince of Tides":  "There are no ideas in the South," Tom says, "just barbecue."

   We definitely have barbecue in the South. But I think we have a few ideas, too. Look at the words of Pat Conroy.