Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Book Review: Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket
In Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket, Elizabeth Engelhardt and her team of University of Texas graduate students tell the story of barbecue in Central Texas. A self-described “potluck”, they invited as many folks as they could to tell their stories without trying to define, argue about, or judge barbecue. Their interviews with restaurant owners, sausage makers, wood suppliers and customers give us a circular view around the pit. In one essay, we read how Billy Inman and father Francis run the Inman’s Ranch House today versus the “cowboy-and-horse days”, in another we read how grad student Carly Kocurek struggled doing that interview because it reminded her of the small town Texas life she left, having never fit in.
Part of what I love about barbecue is that it is more than just food; it is a story. By sheer virtue that it takes so darn long to cook, it becomes and event that we share with others. Republic of Barbecue records those stories, histories and quirky details that make a potluck “greater than its parts”. I particularly enjoyed essays like, “The Feminine Mesquite”, about female pit masters, and the open discussion of race and Austin gentrification by Ben Walsh of Ben’s Long Branch Barbecue. Full color photos fill in the faces and places around the pits.
The authors balance heavy hitters like Ruby’s Barbecue and Kreuz Market with humorous sidebars like a pie chart of pies, and a list of “Foreign Barbecue” that includes joints from China to…California. They garnish this rich feast of history with current topics such as sustainable forestry and a discussion about how modern technology, or “techno-cue”, is debated, dismissed, or in some cases, kept a secret.
This is not a cookbook, or a road book of the best Central Texas barbecue joints, but Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket is a must-read for anyone interested in the people, places, and stories of barbecue. Anyone can write a recipe, but what I want to hear is the story behind that recipe. I want to know about the people that cook a particular dish, the family lore. This book delivers that story.
Buy this to keep next to your favorite cookbooks. While you wait for that brisket to tender up in the smoker, open to any page and sample from the stories like you would a dish at a potluck. You'll find some to your liking, some not so much, but plenty to keep you satisfied and coming back for seconds.