Bob Garner’s schtick is not too complicated. Take a seat in front of a public TV camera and a plate of food — something that makes the audience curse whatever diet they’re on. Describe each dish as you would to a dinner date. Finish up with signature “Mmm, mmm!” Leave audience thinking, “Let’s go there.”
But Garner ’68 takes food a lot more seriously than that.
Before he was a Carolina cheerleader, before he met his future wife in summer school, before he was a TV journalist and a master barbecue cook and a guaranteed smile on WUNC, he knew food much more intimately than just as flavor and fuel.
His father grew up dirt poor at Newport near the North Carolina coast, and his grandfather ran his father out of the house after an ugly family incident. On his own at age 15 in the depth of the Depression, Bob’s father farmed, shrimped, did anything he could to get by — and he rode the rails. After a while he heard from home. Things weren’t going well, and they were willing to take him back.
Bob’s father eventually joined the Navy, making $21 a month and sending $15 of it back home. At the start of World War II he was set for a commission, became a pilot and attended college, and was able to provide more fully for his family.
Bob grew up all over the Southeast, but when the family gathered in Newport, there was an air of reconciliation that endured. When they’d had nothing much else, they’d had food they grew and raised themselves. “There were often 20 people at my mother’s Sunday table,” he said.
“The food celebration was something special. It was great to be able to watch that, and it made a big impression on me.”
He met Ruth Everett ’73 in summer school one year. When he went to tell Ruthie’s father he planned to marry her, his future father-in-law was at work — standing in deep mud in a pig parlor. Garner knew he must have been a sight, in his Bermuda shorts and Weejuns, but he already knew all about pigs “from the ground up.”
Garner speaks in the clear, crisp baritone of his years as a TV journalist and as a freelancer. He did some magazine work and some public relations, but he never strayed far from an intense interest in the sociology of food that made him a fixture on WUNC’s Festival fundraisers.
He wrote his first barbecue books in the 1990s. He’s still doing restaurant reviews for public TV. Though he has the cred — and he has appeared with Paula Deen and Bobby Flay and on the network news shows — he prefers his role as a menu consultant who also helps train the staff at The Pit, one of the surviving whole-hog joints in Raleigh.
“I don’t even like to say I’ve got any particular expertise. I’m a fairly good cook and a fairly good barbecue cook. I’m interested in food as it relates to fellowship or keeping families together or preserving memories. And barbecue has always been the food of celebration in North Carolina.”
Most recently the author of Foods That Make You Say Mmm-mmm, Garner is worried about authenticity — about how, little by little, uniqueness gives way to homogeneity, such as when a mainstay barbecue restaurant adds beef brisket and ribs to meet its customers’ demands.
“How do you stay unique without being stuck in the past in a bad way? Everywhere is becoming so much like everywhere else.”
— David E. Brown ’75