Friday, June 14

Amy’s Notebook: The Community of ‘Cue

Ed Mitchell, Wilson, NC, 2007
Photo by Amy Evans
As the SFA's lead oral historian, Amy Evans gathers the stories of Southern food. Each week she takes us behind the scenes of her work.

Here at the SFA, our mission is to bring people together through food—to make connections via shared experiences. After more than a decade spent documenting barbecue in the South, one thing has become clear: Barbecue isn’t about regional differences or secret recipes or stark rivalries. It’s about family.

When I interviewed Ed Mitchell in 2007 for our Southern BBQ Trail, he was a pitmaster without a pit. His namesake restaurant, Mitchell’s Ribs, Bar-B-Q & Chicken in Wilson, NC, had closed. I conducted the interview at his wife’s business, K & A Church Supply. After more than two hours talking about cooking hogs, we needed to eat. Ed and I headed down the road to Parker’s Barbecue, a North Carolina institution, open since 1954. Everyone there knew Ed Mitchell. They treated us well, and we ate like kings. I was struck, though, by the experience—by the idea that in the world of small-town barbecue, there’s room for everyone (and even fried chicken) at the table.

My lunch with Ed Mitchell at Parker's Barbecue in Wilson, NC, 2007
Photo by Amy Evans

A week or so ago, my colleague, Sara Camp Arnold, wrote a piece about the friendship between Sam Jones of Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC, and Rodney Scott of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, SC. Their connection transcends racial boundaries, cooking styles, and state lines. It speaks to the community of ‘cue—just what I experienced with Ed Mitchell in Wilson, NC, six years ago.

Last weekend, I was in New York for the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. I saw Ed Mitchell, who’s been traveling north to cook whole hogs in Midtown Manhattan since the Block Party’s inception in 2002. Joining him were dozens of pitmasters from around the South. Over the course of the weekend, I heard more than a few of them comment on the powerful coming-together of friends through ‘cue. They showed it, too. I saw Justin and Jonathan Fox chopping meat at Jimmy Hagood’s rig. Amy Mills sent flowers over to Rodney Scott’s tent. The Ubon’s family shared their bloody mary mix with fellow pitmasters. People traded jokes, photos, and iPod playlists via Twitter. And the folks at Jim ‘N Nick’s urged their customers to make sure to visit Block Party first-timer Sam Jones at his rig down the street.

When Sam got back to Ayden, he posted on his Facebook page, “What a great time. This event is like a family reunion for us.”

Sam Jones (R) gives a thumbs-up at the Block Party
Photo by Sarah Jones Miller via Sam Jones's Facebook Page

“Growing up, it didn’t make any difference what the celebration was,” Ed Mitchell told me in 2007.  “If it was significant enough to be recognized, it had to be accompanied by barbecue. And that was the way things were. Good times were synonymous with family gathering and cooking of barbecue and just having a good time.”

The Community of 'Cue in NYC. Pictured bottom left: Sam Jones, Pat Martin & Rodney Scott. Pictured bottom center: Nick Pihakis. Pictured center, fourth from right: Drew Robinson.
Photo via Jim 'N Nick's Facebook page.

And so the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party is a celebration of the Community of ‘Cue. Everyone treated each other like family. We ate like kings.

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POSTSCRIPT No. 1: The SFA has been part of the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party since 2003. Each year, our resident filmmaker Joe York creates a barbecue-themed film that screens at a special Potlikker Film Festival held the Friday night before the Block Party kicks off. This year, we screened Ovens Are for Pie, a portrait of McLard’s Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which will be available for viewing online soon. We also have oral history interviews with many of the Block Party pitmasters and hope you’ll visit our Southern BBQ Trail for more stories behind the ‘cue.

Melissa Hall and John T, Edge at the SFA's booth at the Block Party.
Photo by SouthernFoodways via Instagram

POSTSCRIPT No. 2: I’ve been doing this work—and documenting barbecue—since 2002. When I started, there was no such thing as social media—at least not as we now know it. But today, pitmasters are telling their own stories on Facebook and Twitter, even Instagram. Follow your favorite pitmasters to get a peek into their pits.

Pat Martin of Martin's BBQ Joint joined Instagram during this year's Block Party
Photo by PitmasterPat via Instagram

POSTSCRIPT No. 3: My contribution to the community of  ‘cue last weekend was doing the chalkboards for Jim ‘N Nick’s. If this oral history thing doesn’t work out, I think I have a Plan B.

Jim 'N Nick's chalkboard by Amy Evans via Instagram