Feast of Fury
Talking Southern barbecue and the people behind the pit with Denny Culbert and Rien Fertel of The Barbecue Bus.
by Shome Dasgupta
There is something about the way Denny Culbert looks at the world around him, and it makes complete sense that he’s a photographer. When you shake Rien Fertel’s hand, you’ll notice the same features — quiet and observant eyes, constantly trying to make sense of the world.
By combining their creative minds, these two are a force that dives deep into Southern culture as they bring to our attention, through text and photography, the importance of both the history and current state of Southern food.
A food historian and writer, Fertel is completing his dissertation at Tulane University concerning Creole literature, myth and memory. He teaches in the Tulane History department and has completed over 40 oral histories for the Southern Foodways Alliance. Food photographer Denny Culbert hails from Ohio but made his way to Cajun Country as a newspaper photographer. He now focuses solely on freelance work and is building his career documenting Southern culture.
If you haven’t met this pair yet, you can usually find them at a variety of locally owned Lafayette restaurants, such as The Saint Street Inn, French Press, Jolie’s, Cajun Claws or Pamplona. Basically, if it’s a place representing Southern food and culture, they’ll be there. And if it extends beyond Louisiana, you can find them road tripping on The Barbecue Bus, traveling anywhere from South Louisiana to North Carolina.
A project for the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Southern BBQ Trail, The Barbecue Bus requires Culbert (pictured on the left) and Fertel (pictured on the right) to locate various barbecue joints, interview and photograph the people they meet and provide a new timeline in the history of Southern barbecue. So far, the bus has taken them to both North and South Carolina. As Fertel prepares to hit the road again for research for a book about barbecue and the pair put the finishing touches on their new website documenting Louisiana food festivals, they talk about their craft, the people they’ve met and whether they’re tired of eating.
What is it about history that draws you to the subject of barbecue?
Fertel: Well, it’s certainly the history that appeals more than the food. And don’t get me wrong, I love the meat and smoke and sauce, at least most of the time. But when setting out on the road, I crave stories: backstories, personal stories, historical minutia. I also admire the process of work — laborious, intensive, at times monotonous labor. At a time when we praise chefs who don’t put much sweat equity into their food, I idolize a man, a pitmaster, working over a fire, in a smoky enclosed pitroom all night long. Third, I cherish those barbecue joints from which spring vital communities (or in a chicken/egg question: Does the community create the barbecue joint?). Sometimes the barbecue place is the only restaurant in town. I meet individuals who eat at an establishment twice a day, 5-6 days a week.
How did the idea of The Barbecue Bus originate?
Fertel: I’ve worked with the Southern Foodways Alliance collecting oral histories since June 2008. They asked me document some plate lunch houses in Acadiana in the spring of 2011. And again to hit the barbecue trail later that year. The documentation involves audio and visual recording, and I wanted to up my game by bringing along a professional photographer. Denny is my good friend, and I wanted some companionship on the road.
Culbert: Rien and I work well together. We work independently, but follow the same story line pretty effortlessly. I think living together in an RV while documenting North Carolina barbecue culture really helped us create a style in our collaborative work. We like to work constantly and cover as much ground as possible in a single day. This way, when we find a person or a place that we feel needs more of our time and attention, we can give it. We’re always on the go but rarely rushing.
What are some memorable experiences during your Barbecue Bus adventures? What are some obstacles you faced during your trips?
Fertel: We traveled by RV, on the cheap. We often camped out in Wal-Mart parking lots. So, that could be rather depressing and monotonous in the harsh East Carolina winter. And, it is difficult eating barbecue 3-5 times a day for four weeks. We both came down with what we called “Barbecue Brain,” a zombieish cycle of craving and disdaining an all-meat diet.
Culbert: On the first trip, the most difficult part was deciding what equipment to pack. In the end I probably only used a third of all the gear I brought. I have always preferred to keep my camera set up pretty simple and being on The Barbecue Bus turned out to be no different. I looked for beautiful light and moments to tell the story. One of the best memories from the bus came in Holly Hill, South Carolina at Sweatman’s BBQ. The pitmaster Douglas Oliver knocked on the bus door sometime after 1 a.m. to let us know he was flipping the pig on the pit. I grabbed my cameras and went from a dead sleep to a dimly lit, smoky pit room where I photographed the flipping of the hogs and the application of bright yellow mustard barbecue sauce. After the job was done, Oliver pulled a bit of meat off the pigs for Rien and I to taste. That was maybe the best food related experiences I’ve ever had.
Has working with food so much affected your appetite?
Culbert: I’ve always had a big appetite. Being a food photographer has maybe made me a more adventurous eater than before. Also, I spend a lot of time hungry while editing images of delicious edible subjects.
Fertel: I’ve never considered this. I do remember telling my mother in the months preceding Hurricane Katrina that I was tired of New Orleans because I had eaten everywhere. I was bored of food. Soon after, I lost my business and home, moved to New York, and started researching New Orleans’ culinary history. Food has not seemed dull since.
Outside of Creole history and the history of Southern foods, are there other subjects you’d like to dive into?
Fertel: So many dream projects: a study on the cultural representations of New Orleans throughout history, a long-history, cross-cultural history of chefs, a biography of Batman.
Your particular focus is food photography? What is it, exactly, that draws you to this subject?
Culbert: It’s the people around food: cooks, farmers, hunters and pitmasters that really keeps me focused on food. The amazing things I get to eat and beautiful plates I have photographed are just an added bonus. I’m working hard to constantly improve the food as a still life part of my repertoire, but the people attached to the food are my favorite part. There’s an abundance of great stories waiting to be told in the culinary world.
Does living in the South influence your work in food photography, or if you were living somewhere outside of the South, do you think it would be your main concentration?
Culbert: It’s impossible to say whether or not I would have found food as a subject if I hadn’t been working in the South. In 2010, I created a monthly photo essay at the newspaper where I was working in Lafayette called “Dishing It Out.” I would go spend a day hanging out at a locally owned and operated restaurant. I photographed a day in the life of the establishment along with the people who cooked and ate there. Then I’d sit down with the owner for a short interview.
It wasn’t so much a love of food at the time that drove me to work on this project, but rather a desire to better know the community I was living in. Originally, I’m from Ohio, so the food in Louisiana was quite foreign to me. It makes every experience a new one, but I’m also often jealous of friends who have grown up here with so many great meal time traditions. During the year or so I worked on the feature, I became more and more interested in food and the community around it. I appreciate the history and importance of Southern food, but my interest in the subject definitely extends beyond the South. As I move forward in this career, I plan to explore many other communities through food, hopefully all over the world. South Louisiana has become home for me and I plan on Lafayette being my home base in the foreseeable future.
Are you currently working on any new projects?
Fertel: I’m short months away from defending my dissertation. Soon, Denny and I go live with our website festandfare.com, an audio/visual/textual documentary study of each and every food festival (there are hundreds) in the great state of Louisiana. And June 1, I take to the road to research and write my barbecue book.
Culbert: So many … Right now I’ve been thinking a lot about underwater photography and the possibilities of tying that into food.
Shome Dasgupta is the author of “i am here And You Are Gone” (winner of the 2010 OW Press Fiction Chapbook Contest), “The Seagull And The Urn” (HarperCollins India, 2013) and “Tentacles, Numbing” (Black Coffee Press, 2013). His work has appeared or will appear in Puerto Del Sol, New Orleans Review, Redivider, NANO Fiction, Everyday Genius and Magma Poetry. His fiction has been selected to appear in “The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing Anthology” (&Now Books, 2013), and his work has been featured as a storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story, nominated for The Best Of The Net and longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50. He is a freelance writer living in Lafayette, Louisiana. Find out more about him at www.shomedome.com and www.laughingyeti.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @laughingyeti.