Peace, Love and Barbecue

by Mike Mills and Amy Mills Tunnicliffe

Published by Rodale Press

342 pages, 2005

Buy it online

The Cook's Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue

Published by America's Test Kitchen

432 pages, 2005

Buy it online



More Than Semantics

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Until very recently -- a week ago, perhaps a little more -- my world was a much more orderly place. I thought I understood completely the nature and the make-up of barbecue. That is, I spent my whole life thinking that if I walked out to my deck and fired up my gas grill, flapped a steak or six on when the coals were hot and cooked 'em four minutes a side to medium rare, when I plunked said steak on a plate with an ear of corn and a plop of potato salad, that what I was eating was barbecue.

I was wrong.

I mean, in the very broadest way, I was right. Meat+heat+outdoor grill=barbecue. And perhaps I can be forgiven this definition: I was born in Canada, after all. How could I possibly be expected to fully understand that, to a lot of folks, barbecue is more than grilled meat? A lot more. Barbecue is a way of life and a reason to live. To some it's practically a religion.

In his humorous and sometimes touching introduction to grilling champion Mike Mills' Peace, Love and Barbecue, Jeffrey Steingarten tries to explain what sets real barbecue apart:

1. A barbecue is a backyard grill...

2. To barbecue is to grill meats and vegetables in this manner...

3. A barbecue can also refer to a party or other social occasion, held outdoors...

4. Barbecue, however, is a savory and succulent slab of meat that has been cooked in a completely different manner, that is smoked over charcoal and wood at medium-low temperatures hovering around the boiling point of water in a moist environment for an extended period of time until it is at once perfectly tender and exceedingly juicy and brimming with flavor. The mechanism used to doso is known as a pit, smoker, or a cooker.

Clearly Steingarten loves barbecue. But enter the world of Peace, Love and Barbecue. Mike Mills doesn't just love barbecue, he lives, breaths and sleeps it. Mills, with some help from writer daughter Amy Mills Tunnicliffe, manages to maintain an "aw shucks" insouciance throughout his tasty tome while imparting barbecue wisdom, lore and know-how almost without seeming to try.

Nor is Peace, Love and Barbecue simply a tribute to what is sometimes thought of as the only true American food. Mills and Mills Tunnicliffe take us on a barbecue tour, introducing us to some of the top names in barbecue: even if we didn't heretofore know that there even was such an animal. There is. We meet, for instance, Rick Schmidt of the Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas who not long ago moved "up the road," from the outfit's traditional location "and I built me a little barbecue stand," Mills quotes Schmidt as saying. "It's a little over 23,000 square feet, and it's working." Or Ed Mitchell of Mitchell's Ribs, Chicken & BBQ in Wilson, North Carolina who tells our man Mills that "Good times are always associated with barbecue."

Entwined with all the barbecue lore, tidbits, introductions to barbecue greats and general knowledge of this specialized artform, Mills manages to include some recipes without ever coming close to writing anything someone would be tempted to call a cookbook. There are over a 100 recipes in Peace, Love and Barbecue including contributions from many of the barbecue greats Mills profiles in the book. And so from Midland, Michigan we have Billy Bones Wall's Homemade Sausage with Michigan Cherries and an amazing recipe for Watermelon Ice Cream with Chocolate Seeds that has apparently gone through many hands. (The recipe, that is, not the ice cream.) There's a recipe for Barbecue-Friendly Margaritas and another for Southern-Style Ice Tea (the "house wine of the South"). There are recipes for hush puppies and sweet potato salad and collard greens and banana pudding and cobblers and slaws and even a "Classic Church Supper Seven-Layer Salad."

And what about smoked meat? You guessed it: it's covered here as well. In fact, it's covered here so well, and in such loving detail, I can't imagine needing another barbecue book. Ever.

If, however, your cookbook tastes run to something that looks and feels more like a... well... like a cookbook, The Cook's Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue will fit the bill.

While it could be argued that this is more like barbecue as Northerners have come to view it, those that like their food writing served up in an orderly fashion might well prefer this book. What The Cook's Illustrated book lacks in down home charm, it makes up for with 419 large format pages of hard-packed information on preparing barbecue and the things that go with it. Written by the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine, and the newest addition to a startlingly successful herd of cookbooks, including The Complete Book of Pasta and Noodles; The America's Test Kitchen Cookbook, How to Make Pot Pies and Casseroles and a whole lot of others.

One of the things Cook's Illustrated magazine is known for is sensible, low-key illustrations to guide you through the tricky spots. The Cook's Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue is no exception. Here we are shown -- not just told -- how to most effectively peel garlic, how to prepare quail for the grill, how to prepare jicama, clean soft-shell crabs, brine poultry and make fresh bread crumbs.

As expected, the recipes in The Cook's Illustrated Guide to Grilling and Barbecue are far more cosmopolitan in flavor than those found in Peace, Love and Barbecue. There are over 450 recipes included and they run the gamut of barbecue possibilities. From Tandoori Marinade for a leg of lamb to grilled clams, yams and even pizza.

The emphasis here is on outdoor cooking and eating rather than barbecue as Mike Mills and company would have us see it. Both books are excellent and certainly have their place. But which belongs at your place? You'll have to decide. | July 2005


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.