Smoke's Tim Byres may not have won Food & Wine's The People's Best New Chef contest earlier this year, but according to the current issue of Garden & Gun, he recently pulled off perhaps an even greater feat: He made John T. Edge rethink barbecue.
If John T., the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, didn't write the book on barbecue, he edited it. In addition to authoring Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover's Companion to the South, he's edited The Southern Foodways Alliance's Community Cookbook, the foodways volume of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and the book series, Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing. So he knows his way around a pit.
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Until a few years ago, John T. confesses in a column about Smoke, deviations from the traditional barbecue idiom left him cold. I can attest to his honesty: When I took him for lunch at 12 Bones Smokehouse in Asheville -- a newfangled joint so emblematic of change that Barack Obama put it on the itinerary for one of his first presidential vacations -- John T. was gobsmacked by his blueberry chipotle ribs. He kindly forged a theory about how the region's scant barbecue history (mountaineers typically cure hogs rather than smoke them) allowed for innovation, but I can't recall if he picked the bones clean.
"Confronted with ... riffs on culinary tradition, I keened and hollered about how, while much of the South was being strip-malled, barbecue could and should be appreciated as a cultural bulwark, an intransigent expression of the past in the present," John T. writes.
But then he ate Byres' rabbit sausage and pork jowl "smoked over pecan wood, with spikes of half-sour pickles, whole pickled chiles, and a sauce dotted with pickled mustard seeds." The meal persuaded him the South's smoked meat heritage was as worthy a jumping-off point for talented young chefs as the classical French canon.
Chefs such as Byres, he writes, "argue that Southern foodways are worthy of bone china and heavy cutlery. They argue that barbecue can be more than a mere slummer's indulgence. By way of restaurants like Smoke, they're beginning to win their argument."