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Culinary tourism down South

I wish Arkansas would do more to capitalize on the fact that more Americans than ever before are using their spare time for culinary tourism.

Alabama, for instance, centered its tourism development efforts around food for a full year.

I tend to get the most feedback on this blog when I write about food. Someway, somehow, we should find ways to direct more people to the small, out-of-the way barbecue joints, catfish restaurants and meat-and-three palaces that add so much to the fabric of our state.

Once you’ve done your fieldwork in Arkansas, you can take off across the rest of the South. The Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss will help guide you.

I mentioned in an earlier post that oral histories from Arkansas soon will be added to the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Southern BBQ Trail at

There already are oral histories posted on the site for Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama.

Jake York writes in his introduction of the Southern BBQ Trail: “The whole-hog style that developed along the Atlantic seaboard has drifted into western Tennessee, and the Piedmont style, with some variations, can be uncovered in northeast Alabama and, with American-style coleslaw, in Memphis. Mustard-based barbecue, though still centered in South Carolina, can be found as well in Georgia and eastern Alabama, where one can also find an orange sauce that combines mustard and tomato-based sauces, as if to say, ‘Does one really have to choose?’

“Of course, Kentucky has its barbecue mutton and its burgoo, which resembles Georgia’s own Brunswick stew, a traditional barbecue accompaniment. In Texas, German settlers in a cattle-friendly land developed barbecue sausage and the holy brisket, where today Mexican influence directs the emergence of barbacoa and other delicacies. And in that far edge of the South, Kansas City, half Missouri and half Kansas, it has all come together, as it has come together now in so many cities across the South and across the United States.

“But there are still new barbecue plates being dreamed up by the hungry and the resourceful. How about north Alabama’s white-sauce chicken, northwest Mississippi’s taste for goat or the barbecued gator that turns up in Louisiana and Florida? Whatever it is, it is slow-cooked. If it’s done right, it’s smoked. Honestly, it could be anything, But, whatever it is, it better be damn good.”

Here’s a taste of the individual state introductions on the Southern BBQ Trail website:

Robb Walsh on Texas: “The pitmaster squints into the smoke as he opens the giant steel door. From your place in line, you watch him fork and flip the juicy, black beef briskets and sizzling pork loins. Your heart beats faster as he opens a steel door to reveal a dozen sausage rings hissing and spitting in the thick white cloud. Slowly, the sweet cloud of oak smoke makes its way to you, carrying with it the aroma of peppery beef, bacon-crisp pork and juicy garlic sausage.”

James Veteto and Ted Maclin on Tennessee: “In 1923 Calvin Coolidge assumed the presidency of the United States, Hank Williams was born in Alabama and Thomas Jefferson “Bozo” Williams opened Bozo’s Hot Pit Bar-B-Q in Mason, Tenn. Many years later, in the 1980s, Bozo’s the barbecue joint was engaged in a decade-long trademark battle with Bozo the Clown. The restaurant ultimately won, but only after the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Barbecue in Tennessee is serious business, with a long history that is intimately wrapped up in local identity and authenticity.”

John Shelton Reed on North Carolina: “When George Washington ‘went to Alexandria to a Barbecue and stayed all Night,’ as he wrote in his diary for May 27, 1769, he won eight shillings playing cards and probably ate meat from a whole hog, cooked for hours over hardwood coals, then chopped or ‘pulled.’ By the early 19th century at the latest, a sauce of vinegar and cayenne pepper (originally West Indian) was being sprinkled on the finished product. This ur-barbecue can be found to this day in eastern North Carolina and the adjoining regions of South Carolina and Virginia, virtually unchanged.”

Tom Freeland on Mississippi: “The earliest extant commercial establishments such as Abe’s in Clarksdale are from the 1920s, when good roads and inexpensive cars catalyzed American automobile culture. Mississippi barbecue is ethnically diverse — Abe’s was and is Lebanese owned, and Old Timer’s in Richland has a Greek proprietor.”

Jake York on Alabama: “It is only by cartography, law and convention that Alabama is a state. From within, it reads like a perverse anthology in which the Appalachians give us a taste of the Carolinas, the Tennessee River guides a northern influence, the pine barrens continue the work of Georgia, the Black Belt gestures toward Mississippi, the coast combines Florida and Mississippi, and the Wiregrass gives you a sense of another world entirely.”

The Southern Foodways Alliance describes its efforts this way: “Rather than establish origins, the Southern BBQ Trail seeks to collect stories about barbecue — the meat, the wood, the smoke and the people who have dedicated their lives to the craft of ‘cue. We share tales of pulled pork, barbecued brisket, homemade sausage, lamb ribs and even a few secrets about the sauce.

“For every different slab of ribs or handful of meat piled on a bun, there is a different story. Oral history interviews with pitmasters and purveyors across the South reveal the various ways in which barbecue traditions have evolved and how styles emerged, helping to explain the importance — and persistence — of the South’s barbecue tradition.”

Once you’ve spent a sufficient amount of time on the barbecue trail, the SFA offers these additional culinary trails:

— The Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail at “Meet Elizabeth Scott of Scott’s Hot Tamales, who has been making and selling hot tamales for more than 50 years. … And learn how Sicilian immigrants factor into the Delta’s long history with these bundles of meat and masa.”

— The Southern Boudin Trail at “Visit T-Boy’s Slaughterhouse, one of the last of its kind, where the boudin is as fresh as it can get. Learn about the days when casings were stuffed using cow horns from Jimmy Guidry, the boudin maker at Don’s Specialty Meats. Meet Robert Cormier, co-owner of The Best Stop, who has traced his Cajun heritage back a handful of generations to family in Nova Scotia.”

— The Southern Gumbo Trail at “Learn how to make a roux with Billy Grueber from Liuzza’s by the Track. Meet Lionel Key, an artisan whose uncle taught him to make file from sassafras leaves. And then visit the Olivier family for dinner, where you might find three different versions of gumbo on the table.”

Happy travels across the South. And bon appetit.

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