Garner did not get branded as “The Barbecue Man” until his 50s — and it was a complete accident.
“I was on a pretty standard broadcast journalism path doing general assignment reporting for UNC-TV when I got assigned to do a story on iconic barbecue places in North Carolina,” he said. “It was purely accidental, but people responded positively and encouraged me to do more.”
Garner will be at Flyleaf Books tonight to promote his fourth book, “Foods That Make You Say Mmm-mmm.” The event is hosted by the Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC), which was founded by Nancie McDermott in 2011.
“He’s North Carolina through and through,” McDermott said of Garner, who she has watched since his barbecue segment.
Marcie Cohen Ferris, a UNC American studies professor, regularly attends CHOP NC meetings. Garner’s fourth book was required in her course exploring the history and contemporary politics of food in North Carolina.
“Bob Garner is a great authority on North Carolina foodways and the distinctive food cultures on different regions of North Carolina,” she said. “He’s really honored the social history of North Carolina in the way he uses food as a way to understand families, communities, values through what they put on the table.”
When he wasn’t busy exclaiming his signature “mmm-mmm!” at the hundreds of restaurants he visited, Garner appeared on the Food Network’s “Paula’s Home Cooking,” “FoodNation with Bobby Flay,” the Travel Channel’s “Road Trip” and ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He also authored a 10-part series, “Bob Garner Eats” for Our State magazine.
Although he’s a successful author and established journalist now, Garner said his college career was anything but exemplary.
“I don’t want to come across as having all this sage advice — I think I’ve probably screwed it up as many ways as you could screw it up,” he said. “But when I tried everything the wrong way, I’d come around to the right way.”
Unlike his first three books, “Foods that Make You Say Mmm-mmm” will expand beyond barbecue and take the reader on a culinary trip around North Carolina. It covers classics as well as obscure traditions, such as Neuse River fish stew and livermush, which Garner jokingly described as congealed gloppity-glop.
Ferris said the book was important because it reflects the color and flavor of North Carolina food cultures beyond barbecue.
“He understands the expressive power and the language of food in our state,” she said. “It’s so much more than cuisine — it’s history.”