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Legendary Pitmaster and Son Publish First Cookbook

‘Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque’ includes family recipes and hometown history

spinner image ed mitchell with arms crossed, holding knife; red background with squiggly marks
Photo Collage MOA Staff; (Source: John “Edge” Koladish)

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.

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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.

Q: I see that you spell barbeque with a “q,” rather than the more popular “c.” Can you tell me why you made that decision?

A: Ryan: Our spelling, “barbeque,” comes from a sort of plantation creole, influenced by French and Portuguese.

spinner image ed and ryan mitchell behind table with a bunch of food on book cover that says ed mitchell's barbecue; ed and ryan mitchell, pitmasters with zella palmer

Cook With Ed

Ed’s Mouthwatering Baby Back Ribs

These are the baby back ribs I used to defeat Bobby Flay on the Food Network television show Throwdown with Bobby Flay.

“I Don’t Eat Everybody’s Potato Salad!”

This potato salad is legendary. We served it at our restaurant, pig pickin’s, church and every family function.

Cast-Iron Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

This was a holiday dish at the Mitchell house, and then it became a highly requested item on the menu at Mitchell’s BBQ restaurant in Wilson.

Q: Ryan, what do you think sets your dad’s barbeque apart from the rest?

A: Ryan: He’s an elder statesman, or the last of a dying breed, in the sense that he’s committed to cooking over wood and charcoal. We don’t use any gas cookers for our whole-hog barbeque, and that alone separates our craftsmanship from a lot of others. And aside from just the recipes, he’s just seen more than anybody else. He’s one of the last guys who has actually had a hand in barbeque since the ’40s or ’50s. He’s been around a lot more cooking styles and a lot more types of ingenuity. He’s seen [barbeque] go from cooking in-ground [in pits]. … We’ve traveled around the country and seen pretty much every type of smoker there is.

Q: Ed, how would you answer that question?

A: Ed: Well, I’m passionate about what I do. If you’re going to get in the game, you need to get in there to win it. It’s not something you do for show. You do it because you want to make sure you can be the very best at what you do. I’m very adamant about being the best I can be. I think that’s what has separated the men from the boys.

Q: Your book is full of barbeque how-tos, but what do you think is the one thing that everyone should know about making good barbeque?

A: Ed: Well, if you’re doing it traditional-wise, you want to get your coals right, your wood right, your temperature right. Look, just give fair attention to what you’re doing.

Ryan: Heat is the one thing you have to get right — your temperatures. Every protein cooks at a different temperature. I see guys just throw seafood on top of, you know, 300-degree flames, and that’s going to burn up really fast. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.

Q: What recipe would you recommend people try first?

A: Ryan: I’m going to go with the baby back ribs. That’s the recipe that we beat Bobby Flay with on the Food Network. The long-handled pork chop recipe is also a really good one. That cut of pork chop is not known to a lot of people. It’s an easy one to make — one of the most backyard-friendly recipes.

For side dishes, butter beans are going to be one of my favorites, because they don’t get as much love as I think they should. I’m a huge bean fan. The potato salad is a must-try. It’s barbeque season, so there are going to be a lot of people being asked to bring different things to barbeques they might not know how to really do. We’re trying to save some people here! Get that potato salad recipe, whip it up, and you’ve got something to bring that you can stand behind, that’s going to be a favorite.

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Q: Barbeque is popular right now. What do you see in barbeque’s future? Where do you think it’s going?

A: Ed: Well, I think true lovers of barbeque — people who want to learn the true art of cooking barbeque — will always be out there. I think we’ll continue to see people who really want to learn the skill.

Ryan: I think the country is really trying to put its arms around barbeque, as an American-bred cuisine. Along with that comes the commercialization of barbeque. The saving grace is going to be social media, because social media is going to give a lot of the backyard heroes a chance to showcase their craftsmanship. They can bring it back to a backyard experience, as opposed to a uniquely restaurant experience.

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