Cookbook review: Journey to a smoke-scented summit

"Life of Fire: Mastering the Arts of Pit-Cooked Barbecue, The Grill, and The Smokehouse" by Pat Martin and Nick Fauchald (Potter, $35)

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"Life of Fire: Mastering the Arts of Pit-Cooked Barbecue, The Grill, and The Smokehouse" by Pat Martin and Nick Fauchald (Potter, $35)

‘Life of Fire: Mastering the Arts of Pit-Cooked Barbecue, the Grill, and the Smokehouse’ by Pat Martin and Nick Fauchald (Potter, $35)

Pat Martin will be the first to tell you that “on paper, cooking a whole hog for 24 hours is a pretty stupid idea.”

Even after sourcing your meat and equipment a month in advance, assembling a crew, building and firing the pit, and loading and tending the hog with round-the-clock TLC, “success, I hate to say, is far from guaranteed,” he warns.

The Nashville pitmaster insists he’s not trying to talk you out of pursuing the craft he’s devoted his life to preserving, and that put his restaurant, Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, on the map. He provides a detailed guide to that smoke-scented summit in his new tome: “Life of Fire: Mastering the Arts of Pit-Cooked Barbecue, the Grill, and the Smokehouse” (Potter, $35). But before jumping in, he advises backing up several chapters and tackling more approachable feats like grill-basket butter beans or cast-iron catfish fillets.

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Martin became well-versed in ribs and barbecue sandwiches growing up in the northeast Mississippi town of Corinth, near Memphis. His whole-hog epiphany, however, didn’t come until he paid a visit to now defunct Thomas & Webb Barbecue while attending college in Henderson, Tennessee. Its pitmaster, Harold Thomas, became his mentor — the first of many. He wrote “Life of Fire” to document this dwindling barbecue tradition before it dies out.

“Understanding barbecue and other kinds of live-fire cooking — grilling, charring, ash-roasting, and cold-smoking — is mostly about mastering fire,” writes Martin. Each chapter, he explains, represents a stage of a fire’s lifespan, from Birth (“building the fire”) through Old Age (“cooking in ashes and embers”), and ending with After the Fire — a collection of church cookbook-type desserts.

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Entertainingly written and gorgeously photographed, “Life of Fire” is fun to read, even if, like me, you don’t own a grill. I do plan to make a batch of his hoecakes, topped with pulled pork the Nashville way. I can think of a few Atlanta pitmasters who may be able to supply the missing ingredient.

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.

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