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Book review: 'The One True Barbecue' goes whole hog as it explores the people, places and history that make barbecue what it is

"THE ONE TRUE BARBECUE: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog," by Rien Fertel, Touchstone, $25, 274 pages (nf)

With the recent trend toward farm-fresh ingredients and artisan foods, historian Rien Fertel’s “The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog” is a timely profile of what is arguably the oldest food tradition in existence.

But just like barbecue itself, there’s so much more to this story than just “meat meet flame.”

It’s a book about food, sure, but it’s also about people and places and history — everything that makes barbecue what it is. And thanks in no small part to Fertel’s talent as a writer, it’s exceptionally readable.

Along with plenty of envy-inducing descriptions of the slow-cooked pork and hog-lard cornbread he’s sampled over the years, Fertel touches on everything from barbecue-related superstitions and folktales to swine genetics to pit house philosophy.

The pitmasters and local legends he profiles — some of them, miraculously, alive; others long dead — jump off the page.

And while he’s more than game to play along with the self-mythologizing that goes on in the world of hardcore barbecue, he also takes time to let the smoke clear and get a good look at the details: the cultural tensions, the rivalries, the sense of fatalism, the kitschy pig-themed décor. It’s all there.

To his credit, Fertel never resorts to the “clichéd writerly fallback,” as he calls it, of romanticizing the good old days. Instead, “The One True Barbecue” presents a surprisingly complicated view of its subject, doubling as a full-fledged anthropological tour of the South.

But be warned: For anyone who doesn’t live in the heart of barbecue country — or intend to make a pilgrimage there very, very soon — there can only be disappointment when the book is over and there isn't a wax-paper-lined tray of pulled pork at hand.

Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. He currently resides in Richmond, Virginia — within driving distance of "true barbecue."