If you don’t exclusively use wood to smoke your meat, is it still true barbecue?

"The sacred and the propane"

Barbecue propane vs woodJohn Shelton Reed, an eminent sociologist from the University of North Carolina, has an unusual retirement hobby. He has made it his cause to honor traditional pit barbecue and discredit other cooking systems that rely in varying degrees on gas heat. He’s serious about this, but he usually makes his point humorously. One of his recent True ’Cue newsletters included a doctored photo of women carrying picket signs, one of which said: “Does Your Mother Know You’re a Gasser?” When he cowrote a book on Carolina barbecue with his wife, Dale Volberg Reed, he titled it Holy Smoke but joked that he really wanted to call it The Sacred and the Propane.

Reed was alarmed when he discovered that many Carolina barbecue places no longer cook over wood-fired pits but instead have adopted the convenience and consistency of gas. Three years ago, he and a like-minded barbecue lover, Dan Levine, founded the Campaign for Real Barbecue, a sort of preservation society modeled after a British organization that seeks to protect old-fashioned pubs, the Campaign for Real Ale. Reed circulated a set of rules for authentic barbecue places, and after much back and forth (because this is barbecue after all, and no one easily agrees on much of anything), 42 authors, academics, chefs, and barbecue experts signed on as “patrons.” They included people of standing such as TV grilling star Steven Raichlen and Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, as well as people of lesser standing like me.

The Campaign has started chapters in both Carolinas, Kentucky, and, as of this year, Georgia. When I became involved in the effort to survey the state’s barbecue places and identify the ones that still cook over nothing but hardwood embers and smoke, I briefly imagined myself as a kind of barbecue cop, handing out citations for malpractice. I had our purpose backwards. “This is about recognizing the places that do it the traditional way,” says the Campaign’s state director, historian Craig Pascoe of Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. “All-wood barbecue is in danger of becoming a lost art, and we want to celebrate it before it’s too late.”

As we began our research—basically eating our way across Georgia—we soon learned that the hunt for true barbecue is more complicated than wood versus gas. We also learned that there’s more all-wood ’cue out there than we imagined and that some of it is in surprising places.

“The nice thing about cooking barbecue with gas is that you can control the heat,” TV cook Alton Brown once said. “But you’re going to go to hell.”

If he’s right about that, they’re going to need some extra room Down Below. Last time I counted, there were almost 300 barbecue places in the Atlanta area. The great majority of them employ some form of gas.

In the right hands, this isn’t a bad thing. Some of the best barbecue restaurants in Atlanta use gas-fired hybrid smokers that allow cooks to use as much or as little wood as they want for flavor. Sam’s BBQ-1 in Cobb County, Community Q in Decatur, Big Shanty Smokehouse in Kennesaw, and dozens of other places cook with the leading gas-assisted smoker, Southern Pride.

“We decided we needed something foolproof, something where you didn’t have to pay someone to tend a fire for twelve hours,” says Don Cobbs of the Greater Good BBQ, a local operation with four locations. “It still takes some skill to run a Southern Pride. Each smoker is a little different, and you have to learn its sweet spot. I suppose we could have gone for the novelty of an open pit, but this allows us to get a consistent product.”

Others use Southern Pride’s closest competitor, Ole Hickory. City Barbeque, an Ohio-based chain whose first Atlanta-area outlets in Decatur and Johns Creek have been attracting lines of customers, has tried both and prefers Ole Hickories. “What we do is not the same as all wood—there’s no question about that,” says Frank Pizzo, one of the founders. “But we felt like this was as authentic as we could be within the system we needed to have to make it work.”

So, the Campaign struck from our list all the restaurants that use gas hybrids, as good as they might be. That left the sticky question of places that swing both ways. Two of Atlanta’s most popular barbecue enterprises fit that description.

Williamson Bros., based in Marietta, has a brick pit in all three of its restaurants and uses them to smoke its signature pork shoulders. As if to underscore its wood cred, the flagship location burned down because of a pit fire in 1994. But they also use Southern Prides to cook their ribs and other dishes, so they aren’t, strictly speaking, all-wood.

Nor is Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, the smoked-meat empire on DeKalb Avenue—although it comes close. Jonathan Fox estimates that they own almost $200,000 worth of smokers: fancy, automated, all-wood models from the J&R Manufacturing Co. of Mesquite, Texas (of course!); offset cookers like you’d see on the contest circuit from the Lang company in south Georgia; custom-made whole-hog cookers from Tennessee and North Carolina; and more. All told, Fox Bros. may smoke more all-wood barbecue than any other place in Georgia. But they also use gas hybrid cookers for wings, chicken, and other meats.

“I want to go back to my roots and cook on nothing but wood,” Fox tells me, “but my staff wants me to have Southern Prides to keep up with the volume. It’s a demon I struggle with all the time: craft versus volume.”

And what does the Campaign do with a place like DAS BBQ in northwest Atlanta, one of the best new barbecue spots in town? Stephen Franklin, one of its owners, studied the differences between what he calls silver and black cookers—stainless steel ones fueled by natural gas and dark metal ones that burn nothing but wood. His solution: Use both.

DAS BBQ built two of the black smokers from decommissioned propane containers, 250-gallon tanks for the fireboxes, and 500-gallon tanks for the cooking chambers. They call them Pancho and Lefty, and they smoke most of the restaurant’s meats for hours. But then the product goes into Southern Prides to finish cooking with gas. Franklin believes that it doesn’t sacrifice any flavor because almost all of the smoke absorption occurs in those first hours. (Ribs and chicken are cooked in the Southern Prides from start to finish.)

Franklin knew about the Campaign and its fundamentalist rules about wood. “We’re super cool with it and support what they’re doing, but you wouldn’t want to give us a certificate because we’re not that pure.”

The surprising thing we discovered on our quest is that there are more “pure” barbecue places in the Atlanta area than we expected to find. At least 25 that we know of cook entirely over wood, and we will no doubt discover others.

Some use traditional methods. The Old Brick Pit in Chamblee has a horizontal masonry beaut in the middle of the kitchen that’s similar to the granddaddy of Georgia barbecue pits, the L-shaped elder that’s been in use for 65 years at Fresh Air Barbecue in Jackson. “It’s definitely more labor-intensive cooking this way,” says the Old Brick Pit’s owner, Jane Ann Jarvis, “but people tell us they can taste the difference.”

Others use the fireplace-style pits that once were the standard in Atlanta. The last remaining Old Hickory House in Tucker has one. Old South Bar-B-Q in Smyrna, celebrating its 50th anniversary, has a fine example just behind the counter. “We have a hose next to our pit, and we use it,” says manager Pam Ferris. “I’ve been here 35 years, and we haven’t burned down the place yet—although I have had nightmares about it.”

A growing number of newer barbecue places use automated wood-burning systems from J&R that can cost upwards of $30,000 apiece. King Barbecue in Avalon has one. Heirloom Market BBQ in Cobb County has two J&R Smokemaster convection ovens, with thermostats that control the temperature by regulating airflow. Not that they pay too much attention to temperatures, at least when it comes to the meat. “We cook by sight, touch, and feel,” pitmaster Cody Taylor tells me. “And we clean them out every day. That’s very important to keep out off-flavors.” That attentiveness didn’t prevent a pit fire from destroying Heirloom’s smokehouse in April.

Perhaps no barbecue place in Atlanta makes a bigger display of its cookers than Twin Smokers, near the College Football Hall of Fame downtown. Entering the restaurant, you pass floor-to-ceiling shelving holding split logs of oak, hickory, and mesquite—the “wood library,” they call it. Then, your eyes fall on two side-by-side J&R Oyler rotisserie smokers, red and silver boxes that look as handsome as copper kettles in a brewpub. They have names: Elizabeth and Matthew, honoring two of the owner’s children.

“Elizabeth cooks Southern pork with white oak and hickory,” says Brian Bullock, one of the partners in the restaurant’s ownership group, Legacy Ventures. “And Matthew cooks beef with post oak and mesquite.”

By contrast, some of the most righteous barbecue in town comes from the rugged, black-metal smokers used by Bryan Furman at B’s Cracklin’ BBQ in northwest Atlanta. “I’ve cooked with wood my whole life,” Furman says. “My daddy cooked with wood and charcoal, and my granddaddy did. I didn’t consider any other way of doing it. They send me catalogs for Southern Pride and Ole Hickory, and I just toss them in the trash. If you put the meat in a machine and mash a button and go home, there’s no art to that. And to me, barbecue is an art.”

Though we had assumed that most of the all-wood barbecue places in Georgia would be ancestral pits out in the country, the Campaign’s first designation went to a restaurant in the heart of Buckhead. (The fact that it’s operated by the son of one of the people involved in our effort might have had something to do with it.)

Lovies, located on the back side of a building near the intersection of Piedmont and the Buckhead Loop, employs two black-metal smokers made by Stump’s Smokers of Centerville, Georgia. It took the restaurant nearly a year to get permitted. “The red tape was horribly painstaking,” remembers Nate Newman, the managing partner. “I wanted to build a wooden cook shack, but the city inspectors said it had to be brick. That was probably a good thing, because if it was wooden, I might have burned it down half a dozen times by now.”

One of my most recent discoveries of new barbecue places practicing old customs is Holy Smoke BBQ & More in McDonough. They use a smoker custom-made by a retired hobbyist in Florida who fashioned it from an LP butane tank like you’d see outside a house in the country. (Funny how some of the most tradition-minded barbecue people use old butane and propane tanks.)

“There wasn’t a chance we were going to cook with gas,” says Michele O’Brien-White, who owns the place with her husband, Roger. “When we were getting ready to open, they asked if we wanted the gas cooker that was still here from the last place. We didn’t. Now, it’s for sale at the pawn shop next door.” She laughed. “If someone wants a good deal on a Southern Pride, you could probably get it cheap.”
Some might see that as progress.

Jim Auchmutey was a curator for the Atlanta History Center’s current Barbecue Nation exhibition and is author of the forthcoming companion book, Barbecue Nation: An Illustrated History of the Great American Food. He still remembers how pained he felt when he visited Harold’s, the late, beloved Atlanta barbecue place, and noticed that there was no longer a pile of wood in the parking lot.

Best of the Best: Check out our list of the 10 Best Barbecue Restaurants in Atlanta.

This article appears in our September 2018 issue.

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