Barbecue History: Revised & Expanded

A new second edition of Barbecue: The History of An American Institution is on its way

By Robert F. Moss

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It’s now been almost exactly ten years since my book Barbecue: The History of an American Institution was published, and a lot has changed in the barbecue world since that first edition hit the shelves. That’s why last year I undertook to thoroughly revise and update the book, and the official publication date for Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Revised and Expanded Second Edition is almost here: October 6th, 2020.

Why write a new edition? For starters, we’ve learned a whole lot more about barbecue’s history as a new wave of writers started digging into the subject. Texans have helped lead the charge, with Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly and J. C. Reid of the Houston Chronicle coming onboard at their respective publications to chart the past and present of the evolving tradition in the Lone Star State.

Writers like Michael Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene (2017), and Adrian Miller, author of the forthcoming Black Smoke, have chronicled the role of barbecue in the lives of African Americans and traced its connections to African culinary traditions. Others, like Robb Walsh and Rien Fertel, have taken personal journeys through America’s great barbecue regions, talking to the men and women who practice the old art and pondering what it means for the culture at large.

There’s also been a parade of books telling the history of barbecue in a specific state or city. These include Craig Meek’s Memphis Barbecue: A Succulent History of Smoke, Sauce & Soul (2014), Mark Johnson’s An Irresistible History of Alabama Barbecue: From Wood Pit to White Sauce (2017), and Joe Haynes’s Virginia Barbecue: A History (2016). Piggybacking on the successful “Barbecue Nation” exhibit at the Atlanta History Century, Jim Auchmutey published Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America last year, adding a range of new details and perspectives to the story.

I’ve continued digging, too, and the tools of the trade—online newspaper archives, digitized books, genealogical databases—get better each year. These efforts have not dramatically changed the overall narrative laid out in the original edition, but they have added a lot more color, nuance, and detail to the story—put some more meat on the bones, if you will—and let me fill in gaps and correct a few mistakes.

Here’s a little of what’s new in the revised edition. I dig much deeper into the story of barbecue in the colonial era, which I brushed over lightly in the original book. How barbecue got to the American colonies has been the topic of considerable debate in recent years, and I go into much more depth on the Native American roots. No, I’m not able to definitively answer the much-asked question, “who invented barbecue?”, but the picture seems a lot clearer now.

I filled in a lot of gaps in the 19th and 20th centuries, too. There’s more information about the creation of Brunswick stew (including a recipe from 1870), and a lot of new names and faces make it into the story. I was able to trace the origin of commercial barbecue stands several decades further back into the 19th century, and I added new profiles of pioneering barbecue restaurateurs like A. M. Verner of Atlanta and John Mills, Memphis’s first famous rib cook.

I was particularly pleased to include a more detailed and nuanced account of the career of John W. Callaway, the famous (white) barbecuing sheriff of Wilkes County, Georgia. This new account includes a name that did not appear in the original edition: Henry Pettus, the African American man who actually managed the cooking that earned Callaway national fame. Also new are profiles of two of Pettus’s contemporaries, Pickens Wells and Gus Ferguson of Augusta, Georgia, whose stories were almost lost to history.

My gig as contributing barbecue editor for Southern Living has given me the opportunity to visit a lot more classic barbecue joints and talk with the families who operate them. As a result, I expanded the discussion of early restaurants in chapter 6 and added more “classic examples” where readers can sample the distinctive style of each region. The original version inexcusably skipped the state of Kentucky, which I rectified, and I added the story of South Side Chicago barbecue and its signature glass-walled aquarium smokers—a big gap in the original.

One thing the first version of my book totally didn’t see coming was the remarkable barbecue revival we have witnessed in the past decade. By December 2009, when Aaron Franklin sold his first order of brisket from a blue and white 1971 Aristocrat Lo-Liner in Austin, Texas, the original manuscript had already been submitted to the press. Its last chapter was entitled “The Decline and Rebirth of Barbecue,” and it ended on a hopeful but ambiguous note. Barbecue had rebounded from near extinction in the 1970s and 1980s, but it had not returned to anything approaching its former prominence on the American culinary scene during the golden years after World War II.

From the vantage point of 2020, things look very different, for we are in the midst of a full-on barbecue renaissance. I added a new final chapter called “The Second Golden Age of Barbecue” to chronicle how dozens of aspiring restaurateurs have launched traditional wood-cooked barbecue operations in towns and cities across the country. They’ve been looking to the past, studying the techniques of the brisket masters in Lockhart and whole hog cooks in the Carolinas while carrying the tradition forward, merging it with the sensibilities of contemporary fine dining and adding flavors and elements borrowed from food cultures around the globe.

The writing of history, of course, is never complete. One thing this new version did not see coming was the coronavirus pandemic, and by the time its impact was first being felt by barbecue restaurants in March of this year, the second edition was already in the production pipeline. So I guess we’ll need a third edition at some point . . . but I’ll probably wait another decade for that.

For now, the revised and expanded second edition is available for pre-order at Amazon, and I’m looking forward to launching it to the world in October.


About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.