Charleston, S.C. / Reuters / For much of the United States, barbecue means grilling outdoors, but in the South the traditional method is slow roasting a whole hog over wood embers all day or all night.
Only 10 to 15 restaurants in the South still cook hogs the slow way, over wood, according to John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a food group that is on a mission to save the traditional barbecue.
“Barbecue is our great American folk food,” he said. “Barbecue at its most intense is more than a food. It’s an event at which people gather. It’s a totem of identity.”
Southerners call the celebratory gathering to eat pork pulled from the carcass a “pig pickin’.” Quicker cooking methods like gas, electric or coal cookers are ignored in favour of slow roasting.
The Oxford, Mississippi-based Alliance, which was founded in 1999, documents the South’s culinary history and traditions.
Food historian Rien Fertel, 32, and photographer Denny Culbert, 27, traversed the southern states in their Barbecue Bus to visit restaurants still cooking whole hogs over oak and hickory coals.
“Some are 70 or 80 years old and are still owned by the original families,” said Fertel, adding that their cooking methods and sauce recipes have been handed down orally.
Like the artisanal wines and cheeses of France that vary from region to region, barbecue methods and sauces differ from county to county in the South, Edge said.
Barbecue in Texas means beef. In western Kentucky, it’s mutton and in parts of Mississippi goat is the preferred meat.
“This is a food where much of the expertise resides with African-American cooks,” Edge said.
Edge added their stories are heroic in the truest American form.
“These are men and women who, post-emancipation, found their way into the economy and found a way to support their families by digging a hole in the ground, laying in bed springs, topping those bed springs with roofing tin and calling that a pit,” Edge said.