In one year, barbecue critic and US Navy Reserve Officer Johnny Fugitt visited 365 barbecue restaurants across 48 states to complete the most comprehensive survey of American barbecue to date. The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America blends travel writing, food writing and creative non-fiction to chronicle the journey, share secrets from barbecue kitchens and point the reader in the direction of America’s best barbecue.
A contributor to Opportunity Lives, Fugitt has provided an exclusive excerpt from the new book – only found on opportunitylives.com. In this chapter, Fugitt discusses what he learned about barbecue over the course of his travels – choices in woods and smoking techniques in this particular section.
It isn’t barbecue if there isn’t smoke. I had, for example, a great plate of food from The White Swan in North Carolina. The White Swan has been serving barbecue in rural North Carolina since the 1940’s. I emphasize that I had a great plate of food, rather than barbecue, at The White Swan for two reasons. First, my favorite items were the Brunswick stew and fried chicken – food associated with barbecue, but not necessarily smoked. Both were incredible and the Brunswick stew is one of the best you will find anywhere. I wasn’t all that impressed with the rest of the meal, but thought having a couple top notch peripheral items might be enough to get them on the list with passable pork and a good sauce.
Unfortunately, when The White Swan decided to franchise in 2009, Federal inspectors shut down their process of smoking with oak. Instead, they have to cook with electric in order to ship to each franchise location (most chains have smokers at each location, but the transportation of cooked food is apparently what tripped up The White Swan). I have no problem saying that The White Swan gave me a good plate of food, but I can’t say that they gave me a good plate of barbecue since smoke wasn’t in the equation. Electric smokers are not ideal, but at least they burn wood chips, chunks or sticks. Using essentially an oven, however, just doesn’t cut it.
A common theme from restaurant owners is that increased regulations are making their work more and more difficult. Employee and compensation laws often present challenges to staffing. Sanitation laws have forced many of the old-school restaurants to continue to change practices through the years. In some locales, inspection fees that were once nominal or non-existent have been raised, shifted to the restaurants, and viewed as revenue producers by the city since restaurants are forced to pay hundreds of dollars for an inspection. One restaurant uses a pellet-style smoker because their city requires stacks of wood to be sprayed with pesticide every month. “Mmm…is that a hint of organochlorine insecticide I’m picking up on the pork?”
The most common local regulations, though, are regulations placed on smokers. Many large cities, most often on the West Coast or in the Northeast, have enacted laws against smokers for environmental reasons. To some, the banning or strict regulation of smokers is for air quality reasons. A ban against smokers is also a way for animal rights activists to target restaurants that serve meat.
These bans are not limited to blue states, though. There is only one barbecue restaurant in Houston cooking with a traditional Texas pit. Pizzitola’s was grandfathered into the current regulation, but the law still hangs heavy over the operation of the restaurant. They are unable to make any significant changes to the restaurant – build a patio, expand the dining room, etc. – or they would lose their grandfathered status. New restaurants are forced to use a commercial smoker or leave the city limits. In other cities, a variety of smokers are allowed, but the equipment needed for the ventilation, filtering, etc. is cost prohibitive to opening a restaurant.
Even in small towns, I talked to owners who said the city made them change how they smoked their meats due to complaints from neighbors. Barbecue often thrives in rural areas, but these can also be the strictest when it comes to alcohol sales and this can make a big difference to the bottom line of a restaurant.
One of the great things about barbecue is that it transcends socio-economic lines. You are likely to see luxury cars and clunkers in the same barbecue restaurant parking lot. Not that long ago, a man could put a smoker, case of meat and cooler of beer in a parking lot and, essentially, create a business. The barriers to opening a restaurant today are often too great for this to be a viable option to someone without means, but with the willingness to work. Excessive regulations hurt barbecue. Excessive regulations hurt the American dream.
Excerpted with Permission from The 100 Best Barbecue Restaurants in America, written by Johnny Fugitt and published by Renew Press.