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Lessons from a tour with Atlanta’s barbecue guru

Many of us who think in excess about food go through stages of obsession. Right now, I’m having a moment with barbecue.

In September, I joined a team that competed in the Atlanta Kosher Barbecue competition. October found me documenting DeKalb County firefighters smoking chicken on a Big Green Egg. And, the latest adventure: a sort of “meat and greet” with Bob Herndon, founder of the Atlanta Bar-B-Q Festival and Atlanta Bar-B-Q Club. Who better to show me the culture of smoke and fire in these parts than Herndon, the most enthusiastic barbecue fan I have ever encountered (who also looks a lot like actor Steve Carell and is just as goofy).

How did the Massachusetts native, who has called Atlanta home since attending college at Emory University, catch the barbecue fever? “I don’t know. I just love barbecue,” Herndon said. And, with that nonanswer, we hit the highway.

Here’s a bit of what I learned after following the smoke ring with Herndon.

Lesson 1: There’s always a colorful cast of characters. Shakespeare had his Antonios, his Balthasars, his Falstaff. The barbecue circuit has its names, too. “There’s J.D. and J.T., and always a Bubba,” Herndon quipped. Bubba isn’t the real name of William Latimer (of Bub-Ba-Q in Jasper and Woodstock). The owner of J.D.’s Bar-B-Q in Acworth and Woodstock? Well, his real name is Chip Allen. But, just go with it. Also, you can tell the Fox Bros. twins apart by remembering that Justin wears glasses and Jonathan has the goatee. If you’re going to hang with barbecue pit boys, you also better brush up on legends like Tuffy Stone, and, of course, Georgia’s own Myron Mixon, whom Herndon referred to as the “Babe Ruth of barbecue.”

Lesson 2: There are a million ways to spell “barbecue.” The Associated Press stylebook adheres to spelling it “barbecue.” The AP entry reads: “The verb refers to the cooking of foods (usually meat) over flame or hot coals. As a noun, can be both the meat cooked in this manner or the fire pit (grill). Not barbeque, Bar-B-Q or BBQ.” Atlanta boasts nearly 150 barbecue restaurants, the highest per capita of any city in the U.S. None of these ’cue joint owners care what the AP thinks.

Lesson 3: Eat with your fingers. “I’m so proud of you!” Herndon said. We were at Bub-Ba-Q in Woodstock and I was eating ribs with my fingers. They were covered in a mess of sticky sauce. “You don’t eat barbecue with a knife and fork,” he said, as if delivering a sermon from some barbecue bible. I nodded, my mouth too full to reply. I wanted to make Herndon more proud of me, so I used more napkins than necessary to clean up my fingers, since I equate a pile of dirty paper napkins to barbecue protocol. No one batted an eye when I licked my fingers, either.

Lesson 4: Fall off the bone equals overcooked. How tender is too tender? Herndon and I were chatting about how to evaluate ribs. After all, he is a Kansas City Barbecue Society certified barbecue judge. In fact, the next day, he’d be flying to Kansas City, Mo., to judge the American Royal World Series of Barbecue. “You want to have a little pull — firm, but not mushy,” Herndon said. “If it’s falling off the bone, it’s overcooked.” Barbecue myth, busted.

Lesson 5: It’s actually about the sides. Herndon loves the pork belly at Smoke Ring, the beef rib at Grand Champion BBQ, the ribs at Sam’s BBQ-1 and Dave Poe’s BBQ, but, he noted, when you find a place that excels with its meat, the sides are where it gets exciting. Like the fried corn at J.D.’s. “It’s off the chain,” Herndon said. He ticked off more of his top sides around town: the mac-and-cheese at Community Q, the fried green beans at Pit Boss. I’ll weigh in with the addictively seasoned, not-too-oily, crunchy-fresh pork rinds at Bub-Ba-Q, and the deviled eggs with bacon marmalade at Smoke Ring. Add to that pretty much every appetizer and side at Fox Bros.: Tater Tots smothered in Brunswick stew (the Tomminator) or brisket chili (the Lopez) and doused with melted cheese; brisket taquitos; stuffed jalapeno poppers; Frito Pie …

Lesson 6: All meals must end with banana pudding. Herndon would not leave an eatery without ordering banana pudding. Just as a pitmaster has his own style, every joint does its banana pudding differently, he said. True: The Mason jar presentation with a no-holds-barred quantity of whipped cream at J.D.’s is nothing like the half-pint to-go container version with crumbled wafers at Fox Bros. But, I’m only abiding by this rule when I eat with Herndon. Otherwise, for dessert, see Lesson 5. More pork rinds, anyone?

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