Cookbook review: a flavorful history, revived from the ashes

‘Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque’ by Ed and Ryan Mitchell, with Zella Palmer (Ecco, $37.50)
"Ed Mitchell's Barbeque" by Ed and Ryan Mitchell with Zella Palmer (Ecco, $37.50)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

"Ed Mitchell's Barbeque" by Ed and Ryan Mitchell with Zella Palmer (Ecco, $37.50)

As a teenager, Ed Mitchell learned to cook a whole hog in an underground pit the way his grandfather did, on the family tobacco farm in Wilson, North Carolina. A swig of moonshine was his reward for this rite of passage.

But he never considered making barbecue his life’s work until he was 45 and had already earned two college degrees, served in Vietnam, and built a career at the Ford Motor Company. That awakening came about in 1991 when his beloved father passed away and he returned home to care for his mother. On top of her grief, she was struggling to keep the family grocery store afloat. To comfort her, he smoked a small pig on the rustic cooker in the store’s parking lot and made them a lunch of barbecue sandwiches and fixings. Enticed by the wafting aromas, customers asked if the sandwiches were for sale. His mom replied “yes” and, in time, Mitchell’s Grocery morphed into Mitchell’s Ribs, Chicken & Bar-B-Q.

In 2002, Mitchell shared his knowledge about whole hog barbecue as perfected by Black hands in eastern North Carolina for generations at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. Food media ate it up.

Today Mitchell is regarded as one of the world’s foremost pitmasters, with a line of signature sauces and rubs, a new restaurant in Raleigh, The Preserve, and an induction in the 2022 Black BBQ Hall of Fame. His son, Ryan, left a career in corporate finance to join his dad as heir to the barbecue legacy.

Together they share their techniques, and the rich story behind them tracing back to their enslaved ancestors, in “Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque” (Ecco, $37.50). Zella Palmer, a New Orleans-based scholar and filmmaker whose own roots are intertwined with the Mitchells’, poignantly chronicles their journey. Recipes cover every part of the pig, “from the rooter to the tooter,” along with side dishes, desserts, and other regional-flavored mains such as Washtub Fish Stew and Ryan’s Cracklin’ Crusted Wings.

Gorgeous environmental and still-life photography, historic snapshots, and lively oral histories ensure that the conversation Mitchell stoked about Black pitmasters’ contributions to the food world continues to burn bright. It’s about time.

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

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