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.