A Scholar of Sociology and Wood Smoke

by Peter Dunn on August 28, 2017 · 1 comment

in Alumni Life, Authors, Research

John Shelton Reed ’64

As one of the foremost sociological scholars of the American South, John Shelton Reed ’64 has compiled a distinguished research and teaching record, won prestigious awards and fellowships, and cofounded a research center and journal at the University of North Carolina (UNC). But perhaps his greatest fame—and tremendous personal enjoyment—has come from his passion for one of the South’s most popular creations: barbecue.

Barbecue, says Reed, is “intensely local,” like the myriad cheeses of France or the sausages of Germany, serving as a reflection of place, tradition, and cultural identity. Regions and cities from the Carolinas to Texas hew to different time-honored cooking methods, seasonings, and choices of meat, and passions run high about the relative merits of each. But the use of wood and wood smoke are defining features, he says. That’s one of his tenets as cofounder and “eminence grease” of the Campaign for Real Barbecue, a regional group of aficionados and chefs.

Reed and his wife (and frequent coauthor) Dale Volberg Reed live near the border between North Carolina’s Eastern and Piedmont barbecue regions, the subject of their widely lauded 2008 book, Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue. “Dale prefers Piedmont and I prefer Eastern,” says Reed, “but I’m pretty indiscriminate in my tastes, as long as it’s cooked with wood and done with skill.”

Reed, a Tennessee native, became intrigued by Southern identity during his political science studies at MIT. “When I got to Boston in the early 1960s I had to explain a lot,” he recalls. “People were always asking, What do you people think about this or that? I had never thought of myself as one of ‘you people.’ I started reading a lot independently. I went to my doctoral program at Columbia University thinking I’d become a mathematical sociologist but ended up writing my dissertation about the South.”

That dissertation, The Enduring South: Subcultural Persistence in Mass Society, became the first of Reed’s 18 wide-ranging books about the South. Other topics have included ethnic perspectives on culture, the bohemian community in 1920s New Orleans, and, in the Reeds’ coauthored 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about the South, short essays on popular culture. During his 31-year career at UNC, Reed fostered interdisciplinary scholarship by cofounding the Center for Southern Studies and Southern Cultures, an academic quarterly. He retired in 2000 as the William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science.

The Reeds have two daughters and two granddaughters. Reed cites as his favorite recreational activity “writing books about cooking.”

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of MIT Technology Review magazine.

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