Barbecue is serious business here in the South. For starters, it means pork, although I understand there are states west of the Mississippi that insist on beef, some folks in Kentucky who like mutton, and Yankees who use “barbecue” as a synonym for grilling anything. Really! In the Carolinas, wars have been fought and families divided as to a preference for Rocky Mount ribs over Low Country chopped, or vinegar versus mustard when it comes to sauce. Best to have both on hand to avoid argument.
Because barbecue is so serious, it’s prime material for satire, something my former Sentinel colleague Blake Fontenay knows well. His first novel, The Politics of Barbecue, is a juicy comedy of bad manners, featuring greedy powerbrokers out to exploit the good folks of Memphis by cashing in on the popularity of pork products.
Chief villain would be Pete Pigg, owner of the Beale Street eatery known as the Pigg Pen, and the unlikely mayor of Memphis. But in his quest to build a Barbecue Hall of Fame on the downtown waterfront, Pigg encounters other sleazy wheeler-dealers, including a porn producer who wants to build an “art film” studio on the same location and a beef barbecue king out of Kansas City with plans for a rival tourist attraction.
On the side of the angels, though, are former newspaper reporter-turned-PR flak Joe Miller, Hollywood actress and hometown girl Dawn Funderburke, an Elvis “tribute artist,” and a millionaire masquerading as a homeless water rat.
As for the urban arsonist known as the Ghetto Blazer, his identity and true intentions will be revealed in good time.
Fontenay, who spent 10 years as a Memphis journalist and now works as a communications director for Tennessee state government, has an obvious appreciation for down-home politics and bureaucratic fumblings. Also for barbecue. Pork, of course.
Open Book: I read a hardcover review copy of Blake Fontenay’s The Politics of Barbecue (John F. Blair). Blair also publishes Caroline Cousins, who loves a good pig pickin’.