Ed Mitchell is a barbeque legend. The North Carolina pitmaster — known in some circles as “The Pitmaster” — began his barbeque journey in 1991. Around the time of his father’s death, Mitchell moved back to his hometown of Wilson, a former tobacco town about 50 miles east of Raleigh, to help run his family’s small grocery store. After his father died, his mother requested “old-fashioned barbeque” as comfort food.
Mitchell bought a 35-pound pig and fired up the coals in the parking lot. The sweet smell of crackling meat drew hungry customers, and Mitchell started selling his barbeque. His reputation as an old-school pitmaster grew and attracted barbeque pilgrims — including the late Anthony Bourdain. Mitchell has since become an international barbeque celebrity. He played a starring role in the book Cooked by Michael Pollan and competed with Bobby Flay on the Food Network.
The pitmaster, who just turned 77, is sharing his recipes and stories in his first cookbook: Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque, coauthored with his son, Ryan, 45, and the writer and food historian Zella Palmer.
Rooted in the history of Wilson and the Mitchell family — including decades of slavery and sharecropping — the book is a chronicle of family tradition. (The first recipe is for “The Mitchells’ Eastern North Carolina Old-Fashioned Whole-Hog Barbeque.”) It’s also a showcase for barbeque innovation, from smoked collard green dip to tofu “burnt ends.” Much of that next-generation flavor comes from Ryan, a former investment banker who returned to Wilson and the family business during the Great Recession.
Before the book’s publication, AARP spoke with Ed and Ryan Mitchell to get their takes on the basics of standout barbeque, what every aspiring pitmaster should know and the future of barbeque.