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.

Barbecue showtime!


This is my first post in a while, and I’m switching gears to my new book, “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America,” which had its launch last night at the Atlanta History Center. What a great evening. A standing-room-only crowd came for a reception catered by Atlanta’s DAS BBQ (I’m sure it was tasty, but I was too busy to get any, dammit). Then the program began, with Sheffield Hale, the center’s CEO, introducing me.

The History Center started this book rolling a decade ago when they asked me to help advise on an exhibition about the great American institution of barbecue. Then they asked me if I’d like to do the companion book, to be put out by their publishing partner, the University of Georgia Press. I ended up writing the book and helping to curate the exhibition, “Barbecue Nation,” on view at the Buckhead museum through Sept. 29.

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My talk was basically a slide show with a lot of anecdotes and funny asides. It couldn’t have gone better. Well, I do wish that picture we showed of Homer Simpson standing at a grill had more accurate color. On the projection screen, his skin was green, like he was a Martian instead of bright yellow cartoon character. On the other hand, when I showed a 1964 ad for Armor Ribs-in-a-Can (yes, they really sold ribs in a can, like dog food), no one who had just eaten the real barbecue barfed. For that, I am grateful.

Many thanks to the History Center, the University of Georgia Press, and the many friends (like Alice Murray, shown with me at the signing table), family members and barbecue people who came out for the debut event. It was special.