Jim Auchmutey Explains The World — And Barbecue

Hop in the car. Jim Auchmutey has been planning this road trip for a long time. Be ready to learn more about the world — especially the United States — and be ready for your appetite to increase again and again. But worry not; Auchmutey makes plenty of stops along the way. This road trip, after all, is about building and sating appetites.

With his book, Smokelore, Jim Auchmutey explores and explains the world via a plate of barbecue. It’s a world Auchmutey knows well. In 1954 his grandfather, Charles Robert Auchmutey, was featured in a Saturday Evening Post article about a 4th of July barbecue in Bartow County. Daddy Bob, as he was called, ran the pit at the Euharlee Farmers Club barbecue, smoking the meats and making the Brunswick stew. The story made an impression and soon enough Daddy Bob was invited to prepare barbecue for 2,000 people at a civic meeting outside Chicago. That’s how we do it down south, we can imagine Daddy Bob saying. So Jim Auchmutey gets it honest. His love of barbecue, the food itself, its culture and the possibility of it bringing us all together runs deep. When reading Smokelore, we get it too.

Smokelore is subtitled A Short History of Barbecue in America. Auchmutey’s history lesson begins in 1494 along Guantanamo Bay where Christopher Columbus and his crew, on their second new world voyage, got a whiff of fish and iguana being cooked on what appeared to be a spit. The explorers would spot similar cookouts as they sailed along the Caribbean in the years ahead. Meat smoking on a raised grid of green branches was what the natives called barbacoa, the globetrotting Spaniards learned.

The Taino, the indigenous people of the Caribbean in the late fifteenth century, were thought by some to consider barbacoa the “sacred fire pit.” That theory has been debunked by those who’ve studied the Taino people, most of them killed off by exposure to Old World diseases such as smallpox. Still, there are believed to be living descendants of the Taino in Puerto Rico — and still there are those everywhere who think “sacred fire pit” says it all.

George Washington’s image doesn’t convey party guy but he did host a big barbecue in 1793. It followed his  ceremonial laying of the cornerstone of the United States Capitol. Already into his second term as our nation’s first president, Washington must have sensed how well politics and barbecue could work together. Politicos who have run for office ever since have recognized that too. In Smokelore, Auchmutey takes the reader from Washington’s celebration where the main course was a five-hundred pound grilled ox to the scores of barbecues President Lyndon B. Johnson held in the Texas Hill Country. One such barbecue occurred little more than a month after Johnson assumed the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The guest of honor was the chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Ludwig Erhard. There to serve around 350 guests with over five hundred pounds of brisket and three hundred pounds of spareribs was the “Leonard Bernstein of Barbecue,” Walter Jetton. Held at a high school gymnasium in Stonewall, Texas, the food, atmosphere and music manifested wide open spaces and all that is legendary about the Southwest — that is, with the exception of the dessert, German chocolate cake, a nice final touch for Chancellor Erhard.

There are other politicians working the crowds among the chopped and the sliced. Former Georgia governors Eugene Talmadge and (son) Herman Talmadge held legendary barbecues. A Eugene Talmadge barbecue was an exercise in political drama, his scoundrel instincts on display. We read again of how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt planned to spend what turned out to be his last day alive at a barbecue. FDR passed on the pork but did say a bowl of Brunswick stew and an Old Fashioned cocktail would hit the spot. Auchmutey also — and quite rightly — brings up the often-told story of former Governor Marvin Griffin’s barbecue remorse. Looking to regain the office against the comparatively progressive Carl Sanders in 1962, Griffin was soundly defeated. His response was succinct: “Everybody that ate my barbecue, I don’t think voted for me.”

Smokelore is packed and slathered with great stories about the people who have prepared barbecue and the people who have eaten it. Even a vegetarian has to appreciate its role in our history, our politics, our movements, our music and other aspects of our culture. Jumping out of the pages are Scarlett O’Hara, Stephen King, Louis Armstrong, Zora Neale Hurston, Blind Willie McTell, Richard Petty, Martin Luther King, Jr. and even Mahatma Gandhi. King, according to historian Taylor Branch, didn’t buy into the Gandhian emphasis on fasting. King would often say, “Gandhi obviously never tasted barbecue.”

Jim Auchmutey’s road trip takes us far beyond Guantanamo Bay, along the eastern seaboard, back down to Atlanta, out to Memphis, Kansas City, Chicago, several Texas towns along with some jumps across the pond to South Africa, Australia and the Philippines. And that doesn’t cover all the places Jim takes us to visit in the lavishly illustrated Smokelore.  You’ll come away amazed with all there is to know about barbecue, in all its variations. And as the people at Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite joint, Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven, would say, you’ll “come back for more.”