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Pitmaster Ryan Mitchell on America’s complicated history with barbeque

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 09:  (L-R) Pitmasters Ed Mitchell, Jimmy Hagood, Mike Mills, and Mark Maynard Parisi attend the 10th Anniversary Big Apple Barbecue Sponsored By Southern Living on June 9, 2012 in New York City.  (Photo by Brian Killian/Getty Images for Southern Living)
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 09: (L-R) Pitmasters Ed Mitchell, Jimmy Hagood, Mike Mills, and Mark Maynard Parisi attend the 10th Anniversary Big Apple Barbecue Sponsored By Southern Living on June 9, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Killian/Getty Images for Southern Living)

Ryan Mitchell is the son of famed North Carolina pitmaster Ed Mitchell.

Since 1991, their family’s whole-hog barbeque has become the stuff of legends.

Which makes sense, given that the American barbeque is a tradition deeply rooted in Black culture. But embracing it has never been easy for Black Americans.

“I’m the first generation and really the first person in my family to be able to have a completely positive relationship with food and hospitality,” Mitchell says.

Now, the Mitchells have made it their mission to honor this deep-rooted tradition.

Today, On Point: Pitmaster Ryan Mitchell on America’s complicated history with barbeque and the art of cooking whole hog.

Guests

Ryan Mitchell, pitmaster from Wilson, North Carolina who specializes in Eastern North Carolina’s whole-hog barbeque. Son of legendary pitmaster Ed Mitchell. Co-author of the new cookbook “Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque.”

Also Featured

Adrian Miller, James Beard Award winning culinary historian. Author of “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.”

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Ryan Mitchell has been cooking Eastern Carolina style whole hog barbeque for most of his life. He’s a pitmaster from Wilson, North Carolina and the son of barbeque legend, Ed Mitchell. Father and son recently published their first cookbook together titled “Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque.”

And in it, they not only write about the mouthwatering dishes they’ve mastered over the decades, but also about their family’s tradition and the complicated relationship that Black Americans have had with barbeque over generations. So today we’re going to talk about that history and about the art of cooking whole hog.

And Ryan Mitchell joins us from Raleigh, North Carolina. Ryan, welcome to On Point.

RYAN MITCHELL: Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here. Grateful.

CHAKRABARTI: We are very excited to have you. And I want to start, if we could, with the story that your father writes in the book, of the moment that changed his relationship with barbeque in 1991.

Can you tell us that?

MITCHELL: I can. First of all, in 1991, we lose our family hero, which is my grandfather. And at that particular time my grandparents were running a corner store, if you will, bodega, neighborhood grocery store. We sold fresh meats and cheeses and all the things and beverages. And my grandmother’s love language is cooking and feeding the neighborhood and feeding the churches, and just giving people food all the time.

That’s her way to spread her hospitality. And so once my grandfather passed away we were really just in search of a way to try and No. 1, figure out how we were going to save that particular piece of property in the family estate. And No. 2, give my grandmother an out, a form of therapy to continue to feel like she mattered to the family and that we were going to continue to need her prayers and leadership as we got through losing my grandfather.

That particular summer we started, we cooked a pig just as a family dinner, so to say. Because they were retired, so they would cook, she would cook dinner on little hot plates in the back of the grocery store, just as their family dinner, as their routine before they left out for the evening.

So they would get home and just relax. And she continued that same routine. And we cooked a little family dinner that evening, and she was, it was really just meant to feed myself, my two uncles and my dad, and a few other late family members that may stop by and continue to pay their condolences or whatever.

And we cook a small pig that day and a few sides. … We begin to have family meal. And right before we lock the door, a customer comes in, that last customer as you’re finishing up the day, and he grabs a juice and some bread and another beverage, adult beverage.

And he looks over and notices that there’s a little pail of food, of barbeque sitting on the meat counter. And he says, “Hey, can I get a sandwich?” And then my dad looks over to him like, “Man, what are you talking about?” He was like, “The sandwich, a barbeque over there.”

He’s like, “Man, that ain’t for sale. That’s just, that’s family dinner. Mom was just back there making stuff for us to eat and get outta here.” And so my grandmother pops up her head, “Just give him a sandwich. He can have it.” And at her request we give this gentleman the sandwich and he pays for his beverages and he walks out the door into the neighborhood. And so we proceed to lock the door and just continue to get outta there, but right after we lock the door, there’s a rattle at the door.

And it is two or three more other people. This guy went down the street and told the neighborhood that we were selling barbeque. Which was not the case, we had customers from the neighborhood rattling the door and we get up to the door and say, “Hey man, what’s going on?”

We were thinking somebody trying to break in. And the guy behind the door says, “Hey we just, we heard you guys were selling barbeque. We’re just trying to get some.” And my dad looks over, confused, “What the heck is going on?” My grandmother pops up, and just, “Hey, just tell them we’ll have some tomorrow, don’t worry about it.” And so my dad relays that message through the door. And along comes the birth of Mitchell’s, ribs, chicken and barbeque. The next day, five customers. The next day, continue to grow. But mind you, we had no, there was no elaborate business plan to be trying to sell barbeque.

It was just something that we were good at and known for as a family.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Yeah. And so there’s so much in that story. I just want to dig a little deeper, Ryan.

MITCHELL: Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: Because, first of all, as you said, this was triggered by the passing of your grandfather, right? So there was this profound loss, not only for you, but especially your dad.

MITCHELL: Very much, very much.

CHAKRABARTI: The way he writes about it. The patriarch of the family, when he lost his father.

MITCHELL: Very much.

CHAKRABARTI: And then also your grandmother, your dad’s mother. Trying to hold her life together, and especially the store. Right?

MITCHELL: Right. Especially the store.

CHAKRABARIT: Because it was the source of security, of meaning, of bringing the family together. The business was really important. And you, in fact, I love this image of you, like since you were, what, seven? And they turned over old Pepsi crates so you could work the till.

MITCHELL: Yeah. We purchased the soup. My grandparents retired and fortunately, my grandfather, once he retired from the state, he continued to keep working and he was like, “I’m going to do whatever I can to leave my son’s some sort of a business. I don’t care if it’s grass mowing, or lawn care, I don’t care what it is.” Their goal was to leave behind some sort of a legacy.

So they got the opportunity to purchase a old supermarket that was closing down very, very small, 1985. And so they got into that business. And right off the gate, I was, after school, I was, my granddad would pick me up from school and we’d go do inventory, buy products at the local little inventory place and come back and put little candies on the shelf.

And they would always have me in front of the cash register, counting and writing little stuff down. That was like my math homework, learning how to add and subtract. So they would take the old Pepsi Cola crates and turn it upside down so I could stand on it to be tall enough to hit the little button on the cash register.

So my grandfather was my hero, as well. He taught me all the early points of hard work. And just spending time.

CHAKRABARIT: Hard work, entrepreneurship, family. It’s all wrapped up in that.

MITCHELL: All wrapped up.

CHAKRABARTI: And then the way your father tells the story, I find this moment to be important. Because he wanted to help out his mother who was struggling after losing her husband. And then the day that he went over there, if I have the story, it’d been a slow business day, right?

Because she said that very much she’d only so sold $17 worth of goods that day. And he wanted to lift her spirits and asked her what he could do. And she said, “I have a taste for some good old fashioned barbeque.” And immediately, your father knew exactly what that meant. That seems really important to me.

MITCHELL: Yeah, it does. It does. He knew exactly what she was talking about. It had been a while since we had lit the grill or did something like that, or cooked a small pig. And he knew what she meant. And also in that moment, in his mind, this is late eighties, early nine nineties, right?

Or early nineties. And so losing my grandfather also meant losing a significant source of income through his retirement, it meant losing his leadership. More importantly, it meant losing his word with all of the business and or banking relationships that he had. Because he was the type of man that could go into, he can walk into the bank and he makes his deposits and a firm handshake.

And everyone knew Mr. Willie’s word was his word. If he said he is gonna bring you back $100 by five o’clock, he’s gonna bring you back $105 by five o’clock. Back then, relationships were everything. Handshakes were everything. His name was just as important, that was just as important of a loss as it was anything else. So my dad was trying to figure out just what are we going to do and how. And barbeque, my grandmother’s request for barbeque meant that she was in one of those modes to where she was gonna try and use food as another means to sit everybody down and just think and be and pray.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Yeah. And it wasn’t just any kind of barbeque that she meant, she meant whole hog cooked over coals.

MITCHELL: Yeah. She wanted the grill lit up, on the side, wherever it was, but we had it right there on the side of the building. She wanted the grill lit up.

She wanted a whole hog barbeque. She wanted it from her particular butcher that was a couple miles up the road. She wanted some oakwood and old-fashioned cooked barbeque, and she wanted them, more importantly, she wanted the opportunity for my dad and my two uncles to be out there together, figuring it out, because the process is still eight to 10 hours.

We started it very similar. We figured it out.

CHAKRABARTI: So I’m going to tease our listeners a little bit and say that they’re going to have to wait until a little later in the show before I ask you, “How do you cook the whole hog?” (LAUGHS) I’m not going to ask you to give away all your secrets. But just give us a little 101 a little bit later in the show. But the other thing, we’ve just got about a minute before our first break, Ryan. From what I understand, Wilson, North Carolina, was already pretty well known for barbeque, but there wasn’t a lot of, at that time, commercial places that were selling whole hog cooked over coals. Is that right?

MITCHELL: Correct. That’s right. Wilson, North Carolina, the proximity was just perfect, because we were like on that corridor of 301 highway and I-95. So it’s the sweet spot between New York or Florida. So everyone knew, the travelers understood that Wilson was that eastern part of Carolinas was the sweet spot to get some good barbeque.

But at that time, those larger restaurants had moved over to just high-volume cooking, cuz everybody was traveling and that meant they were getting, different cuts of the pork shoulder and pork butts, and not necessarily the whole hog.

CHAKRABARTI: And cooked over gas instead of coal.

MITCHELL: Cooked over gas. They were making money and serving a lot of volume and so they were answering the call to demand.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Ryan Mitchell joins us today from Raleigh, North Carolina. He’s a pitmaster from Wilson, North Carolina and son of legendary pitmaster and Barbecue Hall of Famer Ed Mitchell. And they’ve co-authored a new cookbook called Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque. And Ryan I know that your father was supposed to join us today, but couldn’t because of health issues.

And I just wanted to note that. And to let you know that we are sending to you, him and your family, all the most positive energy we can for your father.

MITCHELL: Thank you so much.

CHAKRABARTI: So I wanted to ask you a little bit more about once Mitchell’s supermarket became Mitchell’s Ribs, Chicken and Barbeque, over the course of those few years, when did you get pulled into the business full-time, or better yet, when did you cook barbeque, your first whole hog?

MITCHELL: You know what’s also a part of our story that people may or may not know, that we all enter this barbeque business hand in hand together, at different ages. And I was 13 when my grandfather passed. By the next summer, I was 14 years old going into the next summer. And by then, we were already rocking and rolling within a year’s time of making the conversion. So I put my first hog on when I was right around 14 years old that summer, right before I turned 14.

And I was in the smokehouse with my uncle Aubrey Mitchell, which was my father’s brother obviously. But he was one of our lead cooks there at the restaurant, as well, cooking barbeque. And so I was playing sports, playing football, and he was my sports hero because he was like this, great football player from our city.

And so he and I always had this special relationship when it comes to sports and working out and, making sure I knew the game. And so he took some time with me inside the smoke house one day and, really a part of a workout day, slash regiment, slash, “Okay, get your chores done for the day so your dad don’t be upset. And then get back to whatever it is you want to do for the rest of the day.” So I put my first hog on, right at 14 years old. And it all worked out, looking back on that day, it really was just a trick for them to kinda get me to do all the work.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS)

MITCHELL: Cause I was always trying to show how strong I was and that I could be one of the big boys, or whatever. So I’m grabbing charcoals and whole hogs off the truck and, just showing everybody, I don’t need them. And they was like, yeah, let’s go ahead and let ’em finish. Let ’em finish it. Yeah. Yeah.

And so they’re sitting back and letting me show off, so to say. And lo and behold, I’m tricked into putting on a hog.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you talk a little bit about the physicality of the work? It’s not just tending to the coals, but like you’re dealing with whole hogs.

MITCHELL: Yeah. You’re dealing with a whole hog. And the average size hog that we start out with is somewhere between 100 and 125 pounds. It takes a lot of physical work. And those times, obviously there was no air conditioning in the pits.

We’re using an outdoor garage pit, a garage that we had converted into a smokehouse. It is North Carolina summertime, so we’re 90 plus degrees in the summer and the physicality that goes into just to prep to even get the hog down on the grill is a tremendous amount of work.

There’s a lot of easier ways to feed people, but there isn’t a more spiritual slash authentic way to feed people.

CHAKRABARTI: Ah-huh. Okay. So let’s hold onto that thought about the authenticity and the spiritual connection. Because I definitely want to return to that. Okay. But there’s also something though that your father has written about.

Which is really important. Because as you were describing earlier, that first hog that he barbequed for your grandmother, there was never the intention of turning it into a business. Because he even writes that he never ever considered the possibility of making a living as a pitmaster because in the community when he grew up, yeah, barbeque was done in that traditional way for church and things like that. And he writes, “No one I ever knew actually owned anything and had ever made a career out of being a pitmaster. All the Black man I knew had to stay in the back, cook and keep their heads down. They weren’t even allowed to own businesses.”

MITCHELL: That’s right. That’s correct. That is also a part of the complexity that we have, just as people of color with barbeque is a small microcosm of the overall world of hospitality. But being a pitmaster, our reputation of being able to cook good barbeque started in the 1800s.

Okay. The context that didn’t make this particular book is that we also were able to verify the childhood rumor for me that my great-grandfather had fathered 35 children. So he fathered 35 children between two wives. And from roughly 1870, all the way up through my dad’s childhood and adult life, our family and different sectors of our family were all known to be really good at cooking barbeque and/or the things that come along with sharecropping and the tobacco harvest. We were just very involved as a family with all these different facets of Carolina agriculture, through work.

The pits and the former plantations and even the restaurants that had grown a decent reputation at that time, the pits were all manned by African American pit masters and the name on the marquee was different. So we didn’t have that experience with seeing someone be successful at it, as it relates to progressing into some form of ownership. And that all relates to just the complex nature of remaining in the service industry side of it, too.

Yeah. Yeah. But there were a few sweet spots for Black Americans during that time, to enter entrepreneurship. And just so happened, forms of service, i.e. you know, opening up a little, a small restaurant of some sorts, or some sort of a mechanics, and lawn cares and trades. There was some acceptable entry points into trying to become an entrepreneur of some sorts.

And we were able to find that sweet spot, but it wasn’t because we had any examples before.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Yeah. I would love to hear you tell the story of how your interest was renewed in having a deeper understanding of the historical significance of whole hog barbeque. Because it’s an amazing thing, that it happens because a certain gentleman, which people might have heard of, named Anthony Bourdain, enters the scene. (LAUGHS)

MITCHELL: Absolutely. Very much, very much. There’s articles out there on how I ignored his emails and phone calls.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS)

MITCHELL: And just totally, just dissed this guy. But I didn’t know who he was. And my family didn’t. Only one, two people in my family understood what was happening with Food Network and the popularity of food.

And so they were aware of him. But, in 2002, obviously I grow up in the restaurant business. So I’m working, and I’m a young man trying to figure out, why is it we are really good at this. We have our name on this building, we’re doing well. But I just could not make the connectivity on why we’re continuing to be in the service industry.

We’re continue to do these things. We’re not making a whole lot of money, but we’re doing a great service to the community by chasing the dream. Again, my grandmother grew up working on plantation homes. So her story about food and beverage were not the greatest, until she started talking to me about how she poured that energy back into her home and why she cooked so much at home.

It was almost therapeutic for her to deal with what she was going through during the daytime, to give that energy back to her family. Again, fast forward to my parents’ generation. Wining and dining around the city, or around the country wasn’t fashionable then. Because they weren’t actually allowed to eat in a lot of these restaurants.

CHAKRABARTI: Exactly.

MITCHELL: And have that experience or positivity with food and beverage or barbeque at that time. The pitmasters around all the places that might have been your favorite, that you could maybe go in the back door of, were all working in the kitchen. And so the presentation of barbeque in the hospitality industry was just something that I was struggling with and trying to understand. And then along comes, so I get through high school, college, and my first year out of college, along comes this gentleman named Antonio Bourdain. And he is on his second season of a show called Cook’s Tour, which is the memoirs from his book.

And he comes in. And after all of my deleted emails, he finally gets the call through to the secretary and the catering secretary. And she comes running down, “Do you not know, you know who the heck this gentleman is?” I’m just like, “Man, no, I don’t know.

But what I do know is that like we got a couple hours to get the money up for the light bill, and the line is out the door. We’re running outta product. I don’t have time for this camera nonsense.”

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) I’m trying to make a living.

MITCHELL: Yeah. I’m trying to make a living.

And it doesn’t even, I have no context of anyone being that interested in what it is we’re doing from a media perspective, from a entertainment perspective. And so Antonio comes in and I’ll never forget, after a couple hours of shooting, he notices me.

Because I’m not on camera, I’m off camera, making sure my dad and my uncles and everybody get the limelight. And I’m making sure all the business is handling, he notices my, quote-unquote disconnect, but my stress with what we’re doing. He has a very candid conversation with me, and was polite enough and brotherly enough to enlighten me just on what it is we had here. And how important our place was in barbeque to the culture. And he said to me directly, he said, “I met you guys at the big Apple Block Party.” He said, “But the reason that I chose you to be on this show is because I did my homework, and I was very adamant with my production team that I wanted the guy whose name was on the building. I also wanted to see if he worked in the pits.” And so he said, “When I verified that the same name that was in that smokehouse working and doing all the work was the same name on the building,” he said, “I made it my business, to make sure that I spoke and brought my interest in this show here to you.”

He says, “So you have something that wasn’t commonplace, right?” And his ability to explain that to me and to just see him. He said, “I travel all over the world, eating food and enjoying different cultures, he said, I could be anywhere.” He said, “But, I’m here.”

And that was my coming to Jesus moment, if you will. On what it is we were doing and who and why people were interested in it.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, yeah. So that really, that sets you on this path of first of all, not only just more deeply recognizing what you and your family had, for sure. But then also this bigger story, the deeper story of, and you’ve mentioned it a couple times, of Black America and hospitality and barbeque, in particular. I want to hear a little bit more from you about what you discovered, not only about your family but about that complex relationship to hospitality that you’ve been talking about.

MITCHELL: Yeah, barbeque, like I said, is just really a small, small microcosm into this bigger picture. But you can’t talk about barbeque without talking about the farm, and you can’t reference the farm without also referencing time and place of plantation life and cooking and being under those conditions of servitude while we were building this cuisine that serves America.

Black pitmasters are, we have the authentic love for the craft. But it is very hard to maintain that intense sense of labor, as you try to figure out how to be in the business of it. And so sometimes, we do different emotions come out, when it comes to doing that type of work and we have to reflect and understand that there’s a bigger picture.

And so we were able to embrace some of that. And it all really starts with understanding that barbeque is it’s a craft that happened. It’s a skillset that was also mastered well before we got to America. These skill sets. Once we started traveling, we traveled to Melbourne, Australia. We traveled to Brazil, and we cooked in these barbeque festivals. And you start learning, the culture of the craft starts with all forms of indigenous cultures around the world.

And so getting to the Americas and continuing to cook in the ground and continuing this art form was something that it’s a worldly thing. And so now you have to, now you learn how to appreciate your contributions to it, and what it means to you and move forward that way.

And but the bigger picture is the way in which we classify who is good and who is great has evolved into, “Who wins competitions?” Or, “Who owns, who has the longevity in successful restaurants?” And so that kind of undercuts the recognition that certain Black Americans can get with maintaining their position in barbeque, because we have turned it into a sport almost.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, I see what you mean. Okay. That overshadows the opportunity or even the obligation to understand the history of this very food that we’re consuming.

MITCHELL: Absolutely. Absolutely. We just have to work on who we call great and who we start recognizing.

And because the opportunity, and the resources available for most African Americans to start businesses and maintain successful run a successful long-term run in any food space is challenging. And once you start to only recognize that from that angle, then by default, you disconnect a certain group of people.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we are speaking with Ryan Mitchell. He’s a pitmaster from Wilson, North Carolina and son of legendary Pitmaster and Barbecue Hall of Famer, ed Mitchell.

They’ve co-authored a new cookbook called “Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque.” And Ryan, I want to just take a moment to talk more about that centuries-long history of barbeque. And why, as you’ve been describing, there’s this complicated relationship that Black America has with the whole concept of not family hospitality or community hospitality, but hospitality and work.

So we reached out to someone who knows a lot about this. And asked him when does the American tradition of barbeque really begin? Because what’s commonly recognized as the southern pit barbeque, he said, dates back to the 1500’s.

ADRIAN MILLER: Probably Virginia is where barbeque started. I think that’s the strongest case for barbeque. Because the indigenous people there would dig a shallow pin in the ground.

They would fill it with a combination of rocks and wood. And they would set the wood on fire, and then they would just put strips of meat either on the rocks and woods itself, or they would lay sticks across the depression that they created by digging that shallow pit and put the meat on that.

CHAKRABARTI: Adrian Miller is a James Beard award-winning culinary historian and the author of “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.”

MILLER: So that looks familiar to what would eventually become Southern barbeque. And then later colonizing Europeans and enslaved Africans bring their own meat, cooking traditions and techniques, and then there’s this collaboration that develops, that puts us on the road to Southern barbeque.

CHAKRABARTI: Miller says, for centuries, that original style of barbeque typically involved cooking a whole animal, a pig, as we’ve been discussing.

Over time, barbeque naturally became a popular menu item for special occasions. After all, when you cook a whole hog in the era before refrigeration, the food needs to be finished fast.

MILLER: You know, if there was a public works project, somebody was going to build a dam, or complete a railway, or start a new road or something, they’d have a barbeque.

Politicians figured out, “Hey, if I have a barbeque, I can get people to come hear me, give a stump speech and eat my barbeque and maybe even vote for me.” Although that didn’t always happen, and they knew that. And then preachers figured it out too. They would have these big multi-day religious revivals that they called camp meetings.

And barbeque was often a feature of that. And then in slavery for enslaved people, barbeque was definitely a way to connect people socially and reinforce those social ties.

CHAKRABARTI: Miller also says cooking the barbeque was extremely labor intensive.

MILLER: Chop the wood, put it in that trench, set it on fire, wait till it burned down its coals.

Then somebody had to butcher the animals, process them, butterfly them, stick poles in them, and then somebody had to cook these animals by flipping them periodically. Another person had to maintain a separate fire of hardwood burning coals. And they would just walk up and down the pit looking for cold spots.

And then somebody else had a bucket with vinegar and spices to sauce the meat. And then other people had to practice their instruments because they were the after-barbeque entertainment. They would play music and dance. Somebody had to serve the food, and somebody had to clean all this stuff up. And for much of barbeque’s history, that work fell upon enslaved Africans and the later enslaved African Americans. Because the racial dynamic of our country is if you’re going to have somebody do a lot of work and not pay them, you had enslaved Black people do it.

So, by the time you get to the 19th century and really towards the end of the 18th century, Blackness and barbeque were wedded.

CHAKRABARTI: And that held true even after emancipation and the end of the Civil War, not only because of the role that barbeque played in connecting Black Americans together, but also because the appetite for good barbeque never went away.

In fact, Miller told us that Black Americans became the undisputed experts of the cuisine, and they set up brick and mortar shops around the country during the urbanization of America in the 1920s.

MILLER: And I would say that soul food, fried fish places and barbeque were probably the three most popular types of businesses that African Americans ran in terms of the food space.

CHAKRABARTI: Barbeque has been many things for Black Americans throughout history. From the forced labor of enslaved people to one of the early opportunities for entrepreneurial success. And throughout it all, Miller says it’s been an important means of connecting the Black community.

MILLER: Cooking is an expression of love.

Somebody is saying that they care for your survival, even if the food is straight nasty. The act of cooking is meaningful. But these food traditions connect us to a past. And we have a lot more in common in that past than we may think. A lot of people that go into a barbeque restaurant today just enjoy it as a type of food.

They may have no idea of its history. But one of the joys that I found in sharing my work with others is people start to see these connections. They’re like, “Oh wow. Native America and its foundation. And then you’ve got enslaved Africans and Europeans. So these shared cuisines in a shared past, I think inform our present.

And help us endeavor to have a shared future.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Adrian Miller. He’s a James Beard award-winning culinary historian, and the author of “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.” Ryan, can you tell me more about what you found and had put in the cookbook as you and your father were doing some research for it that connects to this?

Because, for example, you found articles from what, the 1800’s, the 19th century that described, how plantation owners allowed sharecroppers to occasionally use the barns as gathering places.

MITCHELL: Yeah. Absolutely. That was spot on by Adrian. We did an intense amount of research just trying to backtrack some of the stories from my family.

Like some of the things that we were hearing, that I grew up hearing as a kid. And that were folklore through my parents and grandparents. And so we were able to find articles of shindigs from The Wilson Daily Times, whereas one of the plantations that was connected in our story, not too far from where we live in a town called Stansonburg, North Carolina, which is right near my high school.

There was a story in The Wilson Daily Times where that weekend, they were writing about a separate tragedy, because an incident had happened. But in that story was the relationship between plantation owner and one of the sharecroppers or enslaved African Americans that was there.

He had developed a relationship with him to where on the weekends or at the end of work and harvest the barn, one of the barns, was allowed to be used as a gathering place, as like a form camaraderie for all the other African Americans on the plantation or in the area. And the shindig specifically detailed the menu, which was whole hog chopped barbeque.

And this is lightly likely seasoned by vinegar base, vinegar and crushed red peppers. Now the reason that was so important to us, because it was one of the first pieces to identify not just the use of eating good barbeque, but using the cuisine as a form of business.

So he would charge 10 cents a sandwich or whatever the rate was. And he would sell barbeque at this shindig. And there would be music playing. And it was almost a form of entertainment and or the first form of really entrepreneurship that the hog provided, because again, you’re cooking a whole hog.

That is a very easy way to feed and invite large groups of people.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Survival even is how you call it, right?

MITCHELL: Survival. Yeah. It’s a survival food, and those stories were truly important for us to really connect to and put some credence to, and they were right there in our archives, in our newspaper.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Can I ask another quick thing? Because I did not know this, that on the Underground Railroad, people would learn how to cook barbeque, because doing whole hog barbeque in the ground was a safer way of cooking.

MITCHELL: Yeah, so one of those one of the unique points that Adrian was also mentioning from the 1500’s about how indigenous Americans and African Americans were digging pits in the ground and with fire and rocks and learning the technique of cooking underground, so to say.

So there was documentation whereas on the road to freedom the technique of putting, building small pits in the ground and cooking small entire animals in the ground was also a method of hiding the smoke, right?

CHAKRABARTI: Ah-huh.

MITCHELL: So as opposed to cooking it above ground or in another type of a pit or in another type of contraption or whatever, you would put the food underground and you would cover it and it would cook and simmer on its own.

And the leaves, and the barriers and all the things that they would use to compress it would also hide the smoke. So you weren’t able to see or identify a dead giveaway of where someone was cooking at in order to eat on the run. All of these techniques that are associated with learning how to cook barbeque, you’re cooking it to survive on the run.

You’re cooking it to feed gatherings, and functions, and you’re cooking it to stay alive. And there’s so many different facets on how.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah.

MITCHELL: We connect to it.

CHAKRABARTI: Exactly. We’ve only got a couple of minutes left, Ryan. And I got to come clean with you about something.

MITCHELL: Okay.

CHAKRABARTI: I was a little nervous to have this conversation because I am super aware that I’m having a conversation with a pitmaster and I sit up here in Boston, Massachusetts where we dig holes and throw clams into them. So I can’t say that I know anything about barbeque. And also, we’ve got listeners in the Carolinas, in Texas and a lot of states where there is extreme barbeque passion. So I’m throwing my hands up and admitting I am a total novice when it comes to barbeque.

So give me a little lesson, like where do you start if you want to learn how to do a whole hog.

MITCHELL: We have first and foremost, we have much easier ways and more efficient ways now than opposed to digging a pit in the ground.

I would advise all new whole hog barbeque guys, the first thing you want to do is find you a nice barrel smoker, and a barrel drum or a smoker that’s shaped in the rectangular form. Okay? Understanding that your first hog needs to be somewhere between, we’ll just say 50 and 75 pounds, just so you can get the hang of what it’s going to take to get this animal done.

And so there’s a process that we use, and it’s called banking. And what banking is that you position your coals and your heat in a rectangular form inside of your smoker so that the shoulders and the hams are able to get done at the same time as the middle part of the hog is, which is where the most tender pieces of meat are, that don’t need an intense amount of direct heat.

A barrel drum, a bag of charcoal hickory and/or oakwood. We’d prefer as your heat source, and start with your local butcher. Start with your local farmer’s market and go source one of the most pasture-raised fed animals that you can find. Support your small farmer in that aspect. And you light your grill, you light your smoker. You get your colds going up to about 275, 300, put your grates down and you put your hog down, skin side up. And you shut the lid. Because if you’re looking, you’re not cooking, okay?

CHAKRABARTI: Ah huh.

MITCHELL: (LAUGHS) So you shut the lid and you trust the process. On that size of an animal, you’re probably only going to need about six hours, seven hours at the most. That can give you a great introduction to at least giving it a shot. And while it’s cooking, if my dad was on here, he’d say, “Go find you also a nice legal, but maybe illegal jug of moonshine that you can get from someone.”

Alright? And fill that up with half and half sweet tea and moonshine. And you sit there and you think about how good the food is going to be and who you want to be your first taste tester.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You hit up your local home brewer.

MITCHELL: Local home brewer up.

CHAKRABARTI: And what are you seasoning with? Is your sauce a secret sauce?

MITCHELL: Sauce is a secret sauce, but it’s not. Listen, we are vinegar-based. Chopped whole hog barbeque, crushed red pepper and vinegar base. Apple cider vinegar, specifically, is what we call Carolina barbeque. It’s what we call barbeque in general.

So once your animal gets done, you’re going to need a jug of apple cider vinegar and some crushed red pepper and a little bit of hot sauce and maybe some salt and pepper, sage, paprika, I think what that’s on page what? 14 of the book or something like that? It’s got to be some vinegar involved. And vinegar has, it’s a multifaceted ingredient and it has its own history.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And then you bring your family and your friends and your community together and you just come together over the barbeque.

MITCHELL: You just come together, and you turn them upside, turn them over, and you just find the best pieces that look done and you just give it a taste, give it a shot. And you do that over and over again.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. (LAUGHS)

MITCHELL: Until you get it right.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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