Fertel (Imagining the Creole City: The Rise of Literary Culture in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans, 2014, etc.) mines the small towns of Tennessee and the Carolinas in search of the pinnacle of Southern cuisine: whole hog barbecue.
Growing up in the Cajun heartland of Louisiana, the author missed out on what many regard as the most Southern of food traditions. Not until he joined the Southern Foodways Alliance did he truly discover “real barbecue.” A chance trip to Henderson, Tennessee, introduced Fertel to pitmaster Ronnie Hampton of Siler's Old Time BBQ, and the author spent a steamy morning mesmerized by the grueling labor, smoky flames, and long hours that define whole hog barbecue. Upon first taste, Fertel was transported through the centuries. "I was tasting history, culture, ritual, and race,” he writes. “I was eating the South and all its exceptionalities, commonalities, and horrors....Everything I loathed and everything I loved about the region I called home." From that moment on, the author was driven by a sometimes-distracting zealousness to find every whole hog pitmaster in the South, resulting in this blend of personal, culinary, and regional history. Readers follow Fertel to the heart of it all: Pitt County, North Carolina, where he uncovered the history of the Jones family and their famous Skylight Inn, which in many ways parallels the history of barbecue in America itself. Interweaving culinary and ethnographic history with vibrant character profiles and mouthwatering food writing, Fertel takes readers on an anthropological journey across back country roads and generations to unearth the rich legacy of this art. Mouths will water, but the most discerning readers will likely find the phrase "some of the best barbecue I've ever eaten" and its many permutations growing increasingly meaningless with each utterance.
Fertel is well-aware that the ground he covers isn't entirely new, but food fans and lovers of Americana alike will go whole hog for this loving paean to a distinct tradition.