Whole-hog barbecue is Ed Mitchell’s claim to fame, and it makes for great television—years ago, on A Cook’s Tour, he showed Anthony Bourdain how to prepare it; more recently, he did the same for Michael Pollan on Cooked. In between, the process has been captured by dozens of other shows and publications.
But the Wilson native cooks more than just hog.
In Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque, a cookbook/memoir out this month that Ed wrote in collaboration with his son, Ryan, and food historian Zella Palmer, he shares dozens of recipes that can be made with ingredients and equipment that readers have on hand—as well as an in-depth chronicle of the history that gave rise to them.
The book opens with the death of Ed’s father in 1991.
The loss, Ed writes, led to a decline in business at the family-owned Wilson grocery store that his mother suddenly had to operate on her own. Ed began making barbecue—employing the same method that his ancestors, enslaved “pitboys,” used while cooking for plantation owners—as a way to generate additional revenue for the store.
For both Ed and Ryan, who returned home to help run the store a few years after graduating college, practicing a craft with those roots provoked conflicting emotions.
And as their product gained fame, another tension emerged. Without a foundation of generational wealth, the Mitchells write, there was—and continues to be—a massive discrepancy between the family’s renown and its financial stability.
In 2004, for instance, less than a month after Ed had locked in a brand ambassadorship with North Carolina A&T University, his store was foreclosed on and he was charged with embezzlement. He’d fallen behind in
paying sales taxes.
“Black entrepreneurs can never be late on payments,” Ed writes. “There is no room for a learning curve, and if we make a mistake, no matter how small, we rarely get just a slap on the wrist.”
He ultimately pleaded guilty to the charge and spent 30 days in prison, though later won a racial discrimination lawsuit against the bank that foreclosed on the store.
In the years that followed, another honor for Ed and Ryan—holding a recurring role as headliners at the world’s largest barbecue festival, the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in New York City—also led to financial hardship.
While the gig came with exposure and networking opportunities, it wasn’t paid and the Mitchells were never offered a sponsorship, so they had to go to great lengths to pay for travel and operating expenses.
“Why are so many [well-known] pitmasters white?” Ed writes. “Is it because African Americans consider this type of work too reminiscent of the servitude of their ancestors, or is it because starting a barbecue restaurant today takes hundreds of thousands of dollars?”
Balancing the lengthy, reflective passages in Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque are dozens of recipes, most of which come prefaced with nostalgic blurbs that show why the Mitchells are so committed to preserving these dishes. Ryan touts his grandmother’s fried chicken, which always stays crispy for three days after frying. Ed reminisces about the freshness of the food he grew up on: “Imagine feeding hogs with Silver Queen corn,” he writes, “and tasting the flavor of the sweet corn that you fed the hogs that you raised.”
Ahead of the book’s June 6 release, the INDY spoke with the Mitchells at their home in Wilson to learn more about what led them to write Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque
and what comes next.
INDY: You say whole-hog barbecue is difficult, at times, because it traces back to the trauma of your ancestors, but you also have a strong desire to preserve the craft. And you emphasize that barbecue fosters connection among diverse groups of people. Can you tell me more about how the past has influenced your sentiments around barbecue?
Ed: When we got together around the barbecue pit [when I was young], it was all about harmony and enjoying each other. It would become clear that we were much better together than we were apart. I sort of equate that to being a serviceman in Vietnam. No one was worried about a Black and white situation over there—we were just trying to survive and get back home. With barbecue, when you’re sitting there cooking a pig and focusing on being with each other, you’re not having all these different animosities and racial things and so forth. You realize that we’re actually dependent on one another.
Ryan: We got into the barbecue business on survival means. We were facing a lot of turmoil. My grandfather had passed away and my family was trying to figure out how we could make it. We had to revert back to skills that were ancestral. Cooking barbecue was a craft that was in our DNA.
But that word you used—trauma—that’s a key underlying point. For Black American pitmasters, plantation workers, slaves—these weren’t jobs that were fun. These are skills that we mastered under extreme conditions. So when you fast-forward into trying to build a business around this, you have to figure out “How am I going to put this trauma behind me?” Cooking this stuff can be triggering because it is reflective of doing something in a menial, undervalued state. You have to ask, “How do I take those skills and make something out of it?” That’s really the essence of African American pitmasters like my dad. To push that trauma aside, and still go cook, that takes some work. That takes some guts.
One of the central themes of the book is that renown doesn’t equate to financial stability or a release from discrimination. Nearly every accomplishment you write about is paired with strife. Why was it important to include both the good and the ugly? What do you hope that readers will take away from your experiences?
Ed: I want them to get the real story, the real deal, as young folks say. I was always interested in providing the best-quality product. On the commercial side, when you raise animals in crates, they have to be artificially inseminated. The sow can’t choose the bull she wants to be with. I wasn’t into that; when animals aren’t raised in a natural setting, the flavor is impaired by stress. But what I didn’t realize was that by [prioritizing] natural products, I was [making myself an enemy of] the commercial industry.
Ryan: 1995 to 2002 was a weird time for us. Pork is the economic engine for our area, and at that particular time, the Golden Corral format of trough-feeding large groups of people was [becoming widespread] around here. The big barbecue places who owned the hog farms and who had connections to commercial facilities—places like Smithfield and Wells Pork and Beef—were getting into business partnerships with places overseas. Feeding hundreds and hundreds of people a day in large-scale settings was the going strategy.
The irony of that period was that the commercialized guys had all of the income, but the foodies—the people who were looking for natural foods—had the bigger voices. And they discovered us. We had just opened a cool little place, and we had dedicated ourselves to cooking whole hogs underground in pits, the old way. It was really all we could afford to do. But because we were craftsmen, we got connected to people with the louder voices. Writers were trickling through here and they were going back and putting articles in The New York Times.
When they started talking about [Ed] as “the guy who’s doing it all,” the [commercial producers] were like, “Wait a minute—we don’t need this guy running around New York City, talking about small farmers when we’re trying to turn the pig into a billion-dollar business.”
So, to your original question, we felt it was important to highlight that fame comes way before stability does and that fame doesn’t necessarily lead to stability. Resources are limited for minority-owned businesses. We were on the front page of The New York Times, we were in every magazine, and we were still the last on the list when it came to sponsorships.
For the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, they gave us a $1,500 travel subsidy, but the “compensation” they offered was the publicity that came from being in New York. It cost us around $5,000 a trip to get to New York and back, because we had to travel with our old-school barrels and smokers. But we kept going. We decided that New York City was worth the roll of the dice. It was kind of like paying [the travel expenses] to audition for American Idol—you had the chance of striking gold up there. And lo and behold, the block party was how we met the person who offered us this book deal. It just cost a lot to get there.
Our culture has a huge influence. We need to start being at the front of the line when it comes to earning money off of that influence.
What’s next for y’all?
Ryan: Speaking quite candidly, it’s a three-tiered book deal, so Ryan Mitchell’s Barbeque will be next. My book will be more tailored to my generation. In my dad’s era, pork was the unquestioned dominant food source. There was no fear around what the health parameters were. But now, a lot of my peers are looking back on certain family health risks and they’re incorporating more of a plant-based lifestyle. For my dad’s book, we decided, “We’re gonna just slap them in the face with tradition.”
Mine will be a bit more modern, but it will have the same spirit—a story of perseverance and a celebration of family and barbecue culture.
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