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This time of year is sweet to the chef who grew up tailgating before football games.
“Tailgating has evolved, and people are more into it,” says Matthew Register, author of the new popular cookbook “Southern Smoke: Barbecue, Traditions, and Treasured Recipes Reimagined for Today.” “We started with a little charcoal grill and cooked burgers and hot dogs, but those days for most people are in the rear view mirror.”
Now, game goers pull out all stops, with massive grills, griddles, gas burners, smokers, and portable cookers to make steaks, ribs, wings, and more. Register challenges the norm and likes to prepare foods once not considered for tailgating. Gumbo, soups, and stews, he says, are perfect for late starting games as the nights get cooler.
“You can start cooking many dishes at home and finish it on the tailgate burner,” he says.
But Register’s first rule of tailgating is crucial — you need to make sure you can eat it standing up. A low country boil, for instance, requires only one pot for shrimp, potatoes, corn, and sausage.
“Everyone stands around the pot and eats, and utensils are not needed,” he says. “Or you can just smoke shrimp.”
Seafood is a favorite choice for the man who grew up on a North Carolina island.
“Frying fish is simpler than people think,” he says. “You can use an induction burner and cast iron skillet to fry Spanish mackerel or catfish. No grease needed. Bring deli rolls, slaw, and tartar sauce. And boom — you have a sandwich.”
Chicken wings are always a hit, of course, whether smoked or fried. Register experiments with the “dark side” of the barbecue sauce debate and favors a mustard-based sauce for wings that’s most often associated with South Carolina barbecue. His innovation had some heads spinning at his home turf in eastern North Carolina, where vinegar-based barbecue is king.
Register’s two-day-a-week restaurant in Garland, North Carolina, Southern Smoke Barbecue, sells out most days. His delight in turning recipes of the past into modern dishes is evident in his restaurant and catering business — and in his best-selling cookbook, which reads like a literary tale of comfort food.
Although Register is in the Eastern camp of barbecue style, he admits to liking all styles. His primary cooking credo is “low and slow.” Unlike most Eastern pit masters, he cooks pork butts or shoulders instead of whole hog.
Even though barbecue is the main subject of the book, his fresh take on Southern sides threatens to overtake it. The sweet potato and pork belly hash is his homage to two of North Carolina’s favorite agricultural products. The combination of sweet and salty caught the attention of the “Today” show when he made the dish with weatherman Al Roker.
In June, Register impressed guests with his inventive cooking at the Katharine Brasserie and Bar in Winston-Salem. In addition to the hash and pulled pork (with North Carolina sauce), he served Eastern North Carolina white slaw, cornmeal fried okra, and lemon blueberry pie.
Register’s versions of barbecue and other Southern favorites prove that the foods we grew up with are being resurrected in new ways. And there’s no better time to experiment at home or with some old-fashioned tailgating.