News & Features

Alcohol & History with author Wes Berry

Welcome to the Alcohol & chats, where we ask questions to interesting people in the alcohol world.

This week’s spotlight is on author and professor Wes Berry. Berry wrote the Kentucky Barbecue Book and recently wrote a new foreword for the late David W. Maurer’s Kentucky Moonshine.

1) What was it like writing the new foreword for the book and drawing on your own experiences?
Kentucky Moonshine, first published in 1974, is a fun read. In the forward I wrote for the new edition, I describe the book as an interdisciplinary course in moonshineism. I’ve not made moonshine but have read several books on the subject, and some of the illicit devil’s juice has slipped through my lips. The Forbidden often intrigues, true? I guess being raised in a family of teetotaling Baptists, where all booze was forbidden except for the occasional tipple of Mogen David at the Lord’s Supper, sparked my interest in the variety of methods people around the world use to produce intoxicating beverages. I’m also just greatly interested in food and drink in general. For me, cooking and foraging and trying new foods ranks highly as life’s best pleasure. While teaching in China, I tried the “wine” from a huge jar of pickled snakes. An interest in moonshine, which has risks attached to making and consuming, comes naturally enough. For a taste of the cool book that is Kentucky Moonshine, here’s a snippet from a draft of the foreword: 

In Maurer’s words, “the purpose of this book is to provide a realistic look at the modern moonshiner and to give a reliable account of the institution of moonshining in the state of Kentucky.” Kentucky Moonshine reads like a multidisciplinary college course created by a passionate professor. Chapter one, “Let’s Make Moonshine,” is our chemistry and physics course: a primer on making moonshine that breaks the process down by illustrating how you could make it on your stovetop with a pressure cooker, corn meal, sugar, some sort of tubing, etc. Following chapters cover moonshine history, economics, geography, criminal justice, and sociolinguistics (the last chapter, “The Argot of the Craft,” is a discussion of common usage in the moonshine subculture, followed by a folksy glossary of terms and definitions like “alky column,” “coffin still,” “flakestand,” “puker,” “splo” “sugar jack,” “thumper,” and “weed-monkey”). Quotations from Shakespeare’s plays work as chapter epigraphs. That’s your abbreviated literature course. The chapter “The Geography of Moonshining” is fascinating, especially if you know something about Kentucky’s patchwork of “wet” and “dry” counties and religious denominations and the influence of these on drinking culture in the state.

2) You grew up loving reading and enjoying writing, did you ever think you’d actually write and publish a book?
I probably first got the hankering to write something good and publishable after becoming a literature major with a creative writing minor in college. I was reading a lot of novels by William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway and romanticizing the writer’s life. Living in Oxford, Mississippi for several years, I attended many author readings at the great local bookstore on the town square, and I thought, “Boy, that sure looks like fun — having fans show up for your readings.” I no longer think that’s super glamourous. I’ve traveled around the state and given slideshow presentations about Kentucky barbecue at public libraries and shown up at bookstores for signings, where just two to three people showed up. I’m appreciative of people who have read my book on KY BBQ and showed up to talks and sent me emails saying they enjoyed it. But unless you’re a big-time writer with a huge fan base, you’ll have to be content with a very modest amount of profit and fame. What was your original question? I can go on…..

3) What drew you to write the Kentucky Barbecue Book? And how fun was the process?
I grew up eating the style of BBQ served in southcentral KY — the so-called “Monroe Co. style” of sliced pork shoulder and chickens grilled over hickory coals and basted with spicy “dip.” Then I traveled a lot in my 20s/30s and ate Q styles from many other states (mostly in the South). In the early 2000s, I lived in the barbecue wasteland of northern Illinois and found myself craving smoked meats lovingly prepared. After moving back to Kaintuck in 2005, I got the urge to find out more about barbecue traditions in this state. I was motivated by some books I’d read on barbecue and the meat industry and also by TV shows that were about “America’s Best Barbecue” that never mentioned Kentucky. Magazines like Southern Living would make lists of the 100 best barbecue spots, etc, and again, Kentucky hardly ever got a mention. So I set out to see what I could discover, and now I’ve eaten at more than 200 barbecue places in the state. The book was a lot of work, as any writing is, but it sure was tasty work, and I now have a sense of Kentucky’s regions from the Mississippi River to the Appalachians. I’ve not been to all our 120 counties, but most of them. 

4) You’re also an English professor, what’s it like to teach and how different is it from writing?
Teaching is a lot easier to do because it pays the bills and must be done! Writing is surplus work, and I don’t come to it with ease. Teaching requires community; writing requires isolation. Because I spend so much time standing or sitting at a desk, checking email, and answering gawd-durned interview questions (just kidding — insert goofy face emoji), I’m nearly always ready for something not-desk related, like hiking, foraging for mushrooms, fishing….

5) What advice do you have for those looking to write a book or get into writing?
If you’ve read questions 2 and 4, you may gather than I’m a poor choice to offer advice on writing. I’m undisciplined and reluctant to glue my middle-aged body to the desk, which is essential, of course, to producing anything. I guess it’s becoming possible to “write” by dictation into an iPhone. For me, the words don’t come until I start writing, the thoughts generate, other thoughts leak in, and then you do the work of editing and throwing away and adding. Main advice: read a load of the genre you want to write to see what’s crap and what’s best. My writing teacher Barry Hannah used to say something like this: “Don’t write unless you feel the great sucking void by not writing.” That makes a lot of sense to me now. Unless you’re a best-seller, there’s minimal profit in the work, and writing well is laborious. So I’d say do it if you have something important to say — like spreading the gospel of Kentucky barbecue and moonshine — or if you have an intense passion for a topic, but don’t do it for fame and riches, because the odds aren’t great for that in the writing and publishing business. 

Wes’ book The Kentucky Barbecue Book is available through the University of Kentucky Press and online retailers. The book takes readers from the banks of the Mississippi to the hidden hollows of the Appalachian Mountains in search of the best smoke, the best flavor, and the best pitmasters he could find. This handy guide presents the most succulent menus and colorful personalities in Kentucky. Wes can also be found on Twitter occasionally @hungryprofessor. He’s got a 500-page unpublished novel manuscript he might revisit when he gets the time and inclination, but mostly, he just wants to walk in the woods and go fishing on Green and Barren Rivers which roll nearby his home. 

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