Known as ‘The Pitmaster’ in barbecue circles, Ed Mitchell has been cooking traditional whole-hog barbecue since he was a teenager in North Carolina. Grounded in his rich heritage and generationally propelled, Ed Mitchell and his son, Ryan, collaborate with Zella Palmer in Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque: Celebrating the Eastern North Carolina Whole Hog Barbeque of My African American Ancestors to produce a cultural, communal snapshot of North Carolina whole hog barbecue.
There’s a sort of submission to the elements that all pit masters must sign on for: an acceptance and reverence for meat, fire, and food being simmered down to its elemental bones in the most natural of processes. This humility was imparted to me early on in my trek through the Mitchell’s cookbook. Perhaps pit masters have also bested the art of taming weather conditions, but I have yet to gain such a skill.
My foray into barbecuing brisket on a Sunday was not the sunshine-drenched afternoon I had envisioned, but I took Zella Palmer’s sentiment “where there is flavor, there is history” to heart, and committed myself to a reverent barbecue journey, no matter how difficult the path. Cloaked in raincoats, my husband and I took shifts peeping through drenched binoculars to monitor the temperature of the brisket. In a way, this difficulty and longevity felt symbolic of the meat’s journey to our table: taking time to pay homage to an animal’s life, the earth it consumed, and the farmer that tended to it.
While one supervised the smoker, the other got to work on the sides. Deep frying Ed Mitchell and Ryan Mitchell’s cracklin hushpuppies led to lively debate over whether childhood hushpuppies should be round and plump or long and lean for dipping. No matter which line of the debate contenders fell on, the addition of pork cracklin to the hushpuppy batter created a savory, textured exterior unlike anything we’d had before.
Amidst the downpour, we remained committed to leaning into the experience fully, listening along to Mitchell’s Pig Pickin’ Playlist that marries old soul gospel with classic favorites from Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Nina Simone. The result: a liveliness that extended from shuffling hands in batter, to chilled fingers around a glass of pineapple whiskey lemonade, and even down into the flapping arms of our one year old. Music and cooking are just two authentic expressions of Mitchell’s vision we were invited to participate in, and we felt honored to join their community as we swayed and belted Ray Charles from the confines of our kitchen.
We served the brisket with juicy watermelon and a light potato salad with fresh dill, mint, and fennel seeds that paired beyond our expectations. As the brisket finished, the weather finally relented, and our extended family gathered around a towel-dried table with the smoke and day’s journey still hovering above us.
Listen Here for Ed’s Pig Pickin’ Playlist
Ed Mitchell Shares Three Recipes
We massaged the brisket with salt, pepper, mustard, and a touch of sugar, and utilized our home staple of smoked paprika for an extra smoky touch. This time around, we used a traditional yellow mustard, but would be curious on how the flavor would be impacted by a smoky brown mustard, honey mustard, or, a recent household favorite, dill-pickle infused mustard. Even with a nine-hour commitment, the flavor here is worth every second.
These hushpuppies were the first things we ran out of on the table. While we typically stick to whipped butter as hushpuppies’ dipping sauce of choice, we ventured into trying Mitchell’s suggestion of tartar sauce as an alternative. Making our own sauce from scratch, the result was a light and tangy companion to the extra savory hushpuppies.
I’m typically the type to stick with a simple libation while cooking: a cold beer or a quick Zinfandel pour is all I can commit to while I’m in the kitchen. This pineapple whiskey lemonade may have me recounting those words. A simple combination of whiskey, pineapple juice, and lemon juice results in a quick, refreshing, and downright addictive beverage to share around the smoker.
Excerpted from Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque © 2023 by Ed Mitchell and Ryan Mitchell. Food & Author photos by Baxter Miller. Reproduced by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
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- by Tate Jacaruso
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