I’ve referred earlier on the Southern Fried blog to a wonderful book published last year by the Vanderbilt University Press with the intriguing title “The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture and Barbecue in the Mid-South.”
The book is a collection of essays. Those essays approach the subject of barbecue in this region from an almost academic standpoint.
When I say “academic standpoint,” I don’t mean to imply that the writing is boring.
It’s anything but.
What the essays do have are plenty of footnotes and references to guide the reader who wants to learn as much as possible about the Mid-South barbecue culture.
“Indeed, barbecue is not merely the process or the paraphernalia of grilling, or the meaty burnt ends that result, but a choreographed dance, from woodlot to smokehouse to mixing bowl to platter to picnic table, bar, roadside diner or juke joint,” Gary Paul Nabhan writes in the book’s foreward.
Nabhan is the author of two dozen books on various scientific and literary subjects.
“Prospective barbecue aficionados are selected early by their fathers, mothers, aunts or uncles and nurtured for many years, until their predilection for a certain balance of smoke, sour, sweet and meat is finely honed,” Nabhan writes. “They may not be able to verbally describe how to reach that perfect balance, but they definitely know when it has been achieved or when some gargantuan effort seems to have missed the mark. Satisfaction with barbecue is a lot like pregnancy — either you are or you aren’t.
“Someone recently wondered aloud to me, ‘Why in the world would anthropologists and historians, linguists and ethnozoologists, theologians and evolutionary biologists be consumed by the topic of barbecue?’ What other American food and its preparation are so strongly linked to the distinctive identities of so many American cultures?
“We are what and where we eat, but we are also how we prepare our most beloved foods. And who we prepare it with. And who we eat it with. And who we leave out beyond the smokehouse, who longingly wishes they were in there with us, no matter how stifling hot and claustrophobically congested it may be. No other American food is imbued with such symbolism, such smoke, such spirit.”
There is a spirit there.
Because I hail from south Arkansas, my favorite essay in this collection is by Justin Nolan, who grew up in El Dorado and went on to earn his doctorate and become an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas.
Nolan’s essay is titled “Piney Woods Traditions at the Crossroads: Barbecue and Regional Identity in South Arkansas and North Louisiana.”
He begins his piece by describing a visit to Karl Brummett’s store just off U.S. Highway 82 on the eastern outskirts of El Dorado.
“Down from the hills of the Ozarks comes the native son,” Brummett says to Nolan.
“Yessir!” Nolan replies. “And thanks for taking time out for a local boy.”
Brummett says modestly, “Now, I know very ltitle about barbecue, but I’ll tell you what I do know.”
“In a sense, Brummett is right, of course,” Nolan writes. “Few people claim to know much of anything about barbecue down here in southern Arkansas, where I was born and raised. Partly this is because the region is known a bit more for its Louisiana-based flavors and soul food — neither of which, however, excludes barbecue, it might be noted.
“El Dorado, my hometown of 22,000, occupies the center point of Union County’s broad, gently rolling pine forests. Driving south from Fayetteville, the swift blue-green streams of the upcountry had given way to the flooded forests and gumbo backwaters of the low country somewhere near Gurdon.”
Nolan notes that his career has long been inspired by the great cultural anthropologist Charles E. Thomas, “who depicted the slow burn of cultural loss and modernization in ‘Jelly Roll,’ his ethnographic account of an African-American community in a small rural mill town north of El Dorado.”
The mill town to which Nolan refers is Calion.
The book, first published in 1986, has just been reissued by the University of Arkansas Press.
Residents of Jelly Roll lived in houses owned by the Calion Lumber Co. Thomas, who was a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis for 17 years, returned to his family’s Calion Lumber Co. in 1975 and has run the company ever since.
The UA Press spring catalog says the book combines Thomas’ “unique perspective as both an academician and the grandson of the sawmill’s founder. Thomas conducted extensive interviews covering three generations among the 84 households forming the community.”
Like Thomas, Nolan understands the region and its people.
“My father’s parents and their relatives have deep roots here, and my mother became an acculturated insider after moving to El Dorado in 1957,” he writes. “My mission, as an anthropologist, was clear — I would revisit these Pine Woods, with hopes of discovering something perhaps unseen in ordinary life, something meaningful about social relationships through a binding food tradition we celebrate and fancy ourselves to have mastered. That tradition, of course, is barbecue.”
He comments on the similarities between those who live in north Louisiana and those who live in south Arkansas.
“Folks in north Louisiana, just 15 miles south, share a cultural affinity with south Arkansas,” Nolan writes. “A cultural connectivity can be seen in the culinary traditions, which erase the boundaries, momentarily, betwixt the cup and lip.”
While I’ve long believed that the Delta has this state’s strongest barbecue tradition, Nolan points out that the barbecue tradition in the Piney Woods runs “deep and wide, and like a fair number of culinary mainstays originating in these rolling pinelands, it yields much more than a flavor; it brings forth stories of kinship, solidarity and survival.”
He outlines how the Piney Woods are a crossroads, “a place in the world where black and white people have coexisted for many decades, where social boundaries exist mainly in the background of everyday life, where class lines are more evident in neighborhood architecture than social convention, and where Southeastern and Southwestern cultural traits interpenetrate to form a mosaic that’s just subtle enough to overlook unless you’re seeking to describe it.”
Nolan adds: “The Piney Woods, in some ways, constitute an ambivalent Southern culture. While clearly Southern, this country is neither upcountry nor coastal, neither Eastern nor Western. Aspects of many different ethnic and regional groups are visible among the colorful threads of its history and tapestry. Like the famous watery bayous of south-central Louisiana’s Cajun country, the Piney Woods are a swirl of peoples whose memories make up an amalgam, stroked by Southern history, seasoned through hard times, change, chance and choice.”
Nolan says Brummett is known throughout south Arkansas and north Louisiana for his brisket, pork ribs and smoked sausages. While barbecue in the Delta is always pork, you can see the “crossroads” influence with Nolan’s mention of brisket and smoked sausages. Those are barbecue staples more commonly associated with Texas.
Nolan quoted one pitmaster as saying, “You can tell you’re in timber country straightaway. All you gotta do is see what meats they serve. Mostly oak-smoked, hickory too, sweet sauce but not that sweet, I tell you, and don’t let the slaw trip you up. Most folks aren’t inclined to put slaw on the sandwich bread, and it’s sometimes creamy — and then other times, it’ll pucker you right up. Keeps you on your toes, I guess you’d say.”
Like I said, a crossroads.
Nolan says the region’s barbecue can be viewed as a “blend of Texas and Eastern styles, and as such it is decidedly different from neighboring regions. While I cannot claim the mandate to judge my home region’s slow-smoked flavor, no self-respecting resident would deny that it’s delicious.
“Like other regions of the American South, a culinary pride of place is alive and well along the Arkansas-Louisiana border. Typical barbecue menus in the Piney Woods showcase beef brisket, sliced or chopped; smoked pork, sliced or chopped; sliced pork tenderloin; pulled pork shoulder; pork ribs (beef ribs are served at home mainly); pork sausage; and smoked chicken.”
An elderly pitmaster near Magnolia explained it this way: “It’s a melting pot here. Black, white, east, west: everything comes together in our barbecue. You got the Cajun spices and sweet ribbon cane from Louisiana, a hint of vinegar from the east, the sweet tomato sauce — that’s ours!
“The beef brisket’s so popular around here and chili notes that I suspect must come from Texas, along with their pinto beans. We’re pretty tolerant around here. In fact, I think we’ve been adopting a bit of this and that from each other all along.”
Nolan concludes: “Piney Woods barbecue is perhaps undiscovered by the outside world, but for these long-timers, that’s just as well. While Piney Woods barbecue may not ring a bell in the mind of American food geographers, its hallmark feature is its inclusiveness, it’s shape-shifting habit of incorporating neighboring flavors from the Southeast, Louisiana and Texas.”
It’s the barbecue I was raised on.