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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Black Barbecue Gets Its Due in an Inspiring New Cookbook

My pal Riley Starks and I texted like a couple of kids as we figured out what to make from an exciting new barbecue cookbook, cross-referencing recipes with the food we could get our hands on and the equipment at our disposal.

The book, Rodney Scott's World of BBQ: Recipes and Perspectives From the Legendary Pitmaster, by Rodney Scott and Lolis Eric Elie, is a publishing milestone, both good and bad. Here's why: It's one of the first cookbooks written by a Black pitmaster and published by a major US publisher—and it's 2021 and it's one of the first cookbooks written by a Black pitmaster and published by a major US publisher.

There are some weeds to get lost in with that statement, but you read it right. Experts like Steven Raichlen, Meathead Goldwyn, Jamie Purviance, and Bobby Flay—all white men—have churned out barbecue books for the past 20 years or so. Many of their books are excellent, but they also draw heavily on Black barbecue culture and know-how. Yet somehow, we've had to wait until 2021 for publishers to release something from a major Black voice in barbecue.

In her beautiful recent New York Times essay, food writer Osayi Endolyn puts it this way: "The canon of recipes and foodways emerging from Southern culture, shaped by centuries of agricultural and culinary labor by African people and their descendants, is the foundation of American cooking."


Barbecue is a huge part of that foundation, and Scott is one of the best. He's the James Beard Award–winning chef and co-owner of three Rodney Scott's Whole Hog BBQ restaurants in Charleston, Birmingham, and Atlanta.

That we've had to wait for so long for voices like this is particularly rich considering that Scott and Elie's book is a joy. The words "Every day is a good day"—a Scott motto—are printed on the front cover, and its pages reflect that happiness. The writing is a great mix of tradition, personality, smart takes, technique, and simplicity. Scott takes time to talk about growing up Black in the South. There's also a nice amount of storytelling and scene setting, likely enhanced by his partnership with Elie, a writer and filmmaker. Particularly impressive is the book's 25-page ode to the whole hog.

"One constant in the South is that everywhere you go, pork is king," Scott writes, and World of BBQ treats swine like royalty. The first “recipe” in the book is how to build a 56- by 88-inch barbecue pit out of cinder blocks, a setup large enough to cook a whole, butterflied hog. The instructions are pleasingly specific, down to the number of cinder blocks, the lengths of rebar and welded wire mesh (chicken wire is frowned upon), along with the necessary hammer, angle grinder, and safety goggles.

For Starks and I, testing the book would be Our Kind of Project, but going whole hog was not on the menu during the pandemic, so we kept our aspirations modest and were happy to learn that the bulk of the book's recipes don't rely on having a homemade 34-square-foot barbecue pit. My wife, Elisabeth, and I arrived by afternoon ferry at Washington state's Lummi Island, home of Starks' idyllic Nettles Farm bed and breakfast, and we agreed on burgers for the first night. While they weren't nearly as easy as we anticipated, they quickly taught us something about Scott's food and how the book works.

The burger calls for Scott's rib rub, the slightly sweet sauce he simply dubs “the other sauce,” and homemade Thousand Island dressing, which needs a sweet sauce and his white barbecue sauce. It helps to remember you're making a recipe for a world-class restaurant burger when you're hustling through those five separate subrecipes to make a burger, but they're also more than half of the rubs and sauces in the book's “Pantry” section. More importantly, they are the key building blocks for many of the other recipes in the book. Plan ahead. Read the recipes through well before you want to cook them, and you'll be golden.

Starks and I divided and conquered. On that first evening, we served up those burgers with bacon, the sauces, and two kinds of cheese. We even made a couple of patties with Impossible meat for Elisabeth. They were big, sloppy, monster burgers best picked up just once, with the free hand alternating between napkin and beer. The three of us ate in near silence, happy to be together and eating outdoors.

On his farm, Starks has a great setup for testing Scott's book. There's a Big Green Egg for smoking and cooking low and slow—Scott's “sweet spot” is between 225 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Next to it is an Argentine-style chapa from Del Fuego Ironworks in Portland, Oregon. It's like a giant griddle on 14-inch steel legs. Starks and I just set the whole thing over a fire and got cooking. Finally, he's hot-rodded an older Vermont Castings gas grill to make it a gas-and-charcoal hybrid, that's still a bit of a work in progress. All three setups use hardwood, mesquite charcoal, or a combination of the two for added flavor. Scott prefers cooking on oak, pecan, and hickory hardwoods, but he's not too picky about which woods. "It's not so much what kind you use, but how you use it," he says before reminding everyone, "No pine trees!" because you don't want their sap. Starks had picked up most of the meat from the Carne butcher shop in nearby Bellingham. He was peculiarly excited about the 40-pound bag of Lazzari mesquite he'd come back with, "It's a steal at Cash & Carry!"

We began cooking in earnest the next morning, prepping Scott's lemon and herb chicken, letting the birds marinate in lemon juice, olive oil, dijon, salt, and pepper before some low-and-slow magic on a covered grill for about two and a half hours. Starks, an old-school poultryman, appreciated Scott's practicality when dealing with birds.

"I like to leave the proteins in larger pieces when I'm cooking on the grill," Scott writes, describing why he prefers half-chickens. "It makes it easier to turn them."

On the chapa, we cooked salmon dusted with Scott's rib rub on an uncovered foil sling, set fat dollops of honey butter on top of it, and watched smoke reach over the top of the griddle to flavor the fish.

We also riffed on Scott's grilled vegetable salad, grilling carrots, sweet potatoes, and a few other veggies which had been given a coating of rib rub.

Then we ate exceedingly well. The surprise star of the day was Scott's apple hand pies, where a pre-baked filling of apple chunks, lemon juice, dark brown sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and salt is nestled into half-moons of dough and finished in the oven. It reminded me a bit of chef Eric Rivera's apple pie, particularly the audaciously buttery-flaky dough.

This was a great backdoor into an interesting side of Scott's book; there's a lot of it that isn't barbecue. He's got fried chicken in the “On The Stove” section. The “Snacks, Salads, and Vegetables” section has hush puppies and a salad of marinated tomatoes and onions. Strictly out of a sense of duty, we tried the Hemingway Golden Gate from the “Cocktails” section. It's a tequila drink with lemon juice, lemon wheels that had been dehydrated on a sheet pan in a low-temp oven for a couple of hours, and Scott's barbecue sauce with a bit of honey in it. I was a little skeptical of a drink with barbecue sauce in it, but the cocktails disappeared so quickly, it was as if we were doing shots.

Our second day of testing featured ribs. Another low-and-slow cook that relies on the basics: good technique, good meat—and his rib rub, a tradition-with-a-twist blend of black pepper, paprika, chili powder, light brown sugar, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, Diamond Crystal kosher salt, and MSG. When it's time to flip the ribs, he mops both sides with his white vinegar sauce. Scott uses an actual mop in his restaurants, but you'll be fine with a basting brush.

Starks and I made some slight grilling errors that left our ribs a little crispier than they deserved to be, but that didn't keep us from putting away two big slabs between the three of us.

Elisabeth and I had to catch a ferry the next morning, which meant Starks had pork T-bones to himself, giving them eight hours in salty rib rub before grilling them on a hot fire—400 to 450 degrees—where they got a bit of vinegar sauce mopping.

These were nice, big Lan-Roc Farms chops, and I was jealous when I texted to see if he'd had one.

“Two,” he corrected. “They were yummy!”

Starks and I did particularly well with Scott and Elie's book. The authors threaded the needle nicely, helping people create fantastic food at home, while making sure we all still put his restaurants on our Must Go list.

At one point, Starks got a call from an old colleague and walked off into his field to talk. The last thing I heard him say was, “I am leading an amazing life.” Every day is a good day, indeed.

It's so past time that a book like Scott and Elie's is finally seeing the light of day, that it's both a true gust of fresh air and a slap in the face. I admire Steven Raichlen, his palate, and his cookbooks, but to simply use him as an example, if he is so far into his career that he's just written a book about grilling vegetables (nearly his 20th book!) and that roughly coincides with the first cookbook by a Black pitmaster, something's clearly out of whack. I'd love to see some overcorrection for a good, long while. For now, I will check out Adrian Miller's new book Black Smoke, a historical reckoning with recipes, the just-released Netflix series High on the Hog, and next spring, will dive into The Bludso Family cookbook, by barbecue statesman Kevin Bludso. Mostly, I hope this is a turning point and that cookbook publishers will finally give these Black chefs and authors the attention they've deserved all along.

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