Robert Moss, meet everybody. Everybody, Robert Moss. We couldn't be more thrilled to have this English Ph.D. (from the University of South Carolina) and barbecue Ph.D. (from eating lots of barbecue) as our new barbecue contributing editor. The author of not one but two books on the subject-- Barbecue: The History of an American Institution and the upcoming The Barbecue Lover's Carolinas--will contribute to the magazine and blog every week right here on The Daily South. To give you a taste of Robert’s column (since we can’t just send everyone a slab of ribs), we took a few minutes to interview him on the basics of barbecue. So sit back, put on a napkin bib, and meet the man behind the 'cue.
Southern Living: Let’s get down to business. You know all things barbecue. You wrote a book about it. Two books, actually. Why barbecue?
Robert Moss: I really got interested in barbecue long before I was writing about it. I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, so there was a strong barbecue tradition, but as I was growing up in the '70s or '80s, a lot of the traditional barbecue places were going out of business. Everything switched over to gas in cooking, and everyone was eating burgers.
I really got into it for the first time when I went to college, just driving around and trying out all the classic joints. It became a fun hobby to eat barbecue and try to go to all the different places that I could.
SL: Tell us a little about your new Daily South column.
RM: My posts for The Daily South will chronicle my travels around the South exploring the full scope and sweep of the barbecue tradition and its many regional and sub-regional variations. It will blend barbecue news, recipes and tastings, interviews with cooks and restaurateurs, and a little history too, but the primary focus will be on helping barbecue fans seek out and discover the tastiest and most intriguing barbecue that the South has to offer.
SL: How about a little preview. Where are the best places to grab barbecue in the Carolinas?
RM: There are so many great places to eat barbecue in the Carolinas [note, folks in "the Carolinas" always say "the Carolinas" and not "Carolina," because to us they are two distinct places, just like the Dakotas] that it's hard to narrow it down. But, here are a few can't-miss places that should be on everybody's list: Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, SC; Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC; Allen & Son in Chapel Hill (the one on Millhouse Road, north of town); Stamey's in Greensboro, NC; Jackie Hite's in Leesville, SC; and, just about any of the dozen joints in Lexington, North Carolina, that still cook with wood, like Barbecue Center, Lexington Barbecue, and Cook's Barbecue.
SL: What are the main differences you see in regional barbecues? Is it the sauce, the style of cooking, everything? The meat itself?
RM: It really is everything about barbecue--the meat, the sauce, the traditional side dishes you only get at certain places. Like the coleslaw, for instance.
But it goes beyond that as well. It goes into the way they construct the pits. The pits are very, very different. In Eastern Carolina, whole-hog cooking tradition is super different from the closed metal pits you’ll find down in Texas where they’re cooking brisket. The wood they use is very different.
All those things vary greatly from one place to another and have a huge effect overall on the way the food turns out. And then there are differences in the restaurants themselves: There are buffets, over the counter. Some parts of the country have full bars and you wouldn’t think of not drinking there, and other parts of the country it's hard to find a barbecue place that has a license.
The more you travel, the more you realize how truly diverse the barbecue tradition is.
SL: In American Institution, you write about the decline of barbecue. Can you tell us a little about that?
RM: It really happened over the course of several decades. In the years immediately after the Second World War, barbecue ruled the American restaurant scene. It was the original quick service food. It’s not fast to cook, but once it’s cooked, you can serve it quickly. It was also pretty cheap to get started; you didn’t have to have a lot of equipment. You just needed the pit to barbecue.
In the '50s and really the '60s, you saw the rise of McDonalds and the fast-food hamburger chain, which really focused on grinding all the costs out, making things fast and cheap. From a business perspective, barbecue restaurants fell on a hard time.
Meanwhile, America in general was turning away from these types of regional foods. At the time, they were trying to become more sophisticated by eating French food and that kind of stuff. But now it’s really starting to come back. Really starting in the late '70s/early '80s and moving up through there.
SL: It seems like barbecue is back in a big way. I mean, Wendy’s just announced they have a pulled pork barbecue sandwich. Are you seeing this mainstreaming of barbecue? Why now?
RM: Yeah, that’s been happening for a long time. It’s been growing and growing since the 1980s, really took off around 2001. I think there are a lot of people trying to get back to the basics, back to the old style. I think it’s all part and parcel of getting back to stuff we lost in the past.