Magazines love lists. Greatest guitarists. Best pizza. Hottest cars. They’re easy to read. They’re cheap to produce. And they get people talking.
Every list of the “Best Of” and “Greatest” variety (as opposed to the “10 Suntan Lotions You Need for Summer” variety) are intended to provoke debate. Their whole point is to generate controversy, which creates buzz, which attracts readers.
The listmakers themselves might not always agree with their magazine’s lists. Ever had an argument with a friend about the best sandwich or movie actor or album and get agitated over your friend’s inability to see reason — which is to say, to agree with your opinion? That agitation is 10 times deeper when opinionated people, often with inflated egos to protect, argue fiercely. About burgers.
That is a general overview of how these things go down. That is, they are argued over by informed people who take them seriously. In the end, no one agrees with everything on the list. (Unless, of course, it is his or her own list, which is a different matter entirely.)
Now here comes Food & Wine’s “Best BBQ” list. It is. . . how to put this?. . . if I kept a list of barbecue lists, this would rank as the No. 1 Dumbest Barbecue List Ever.
Look, before I really get started, let me say that some local folks are on the list. I don’t want to take anything away from them or, for that matter, anyone else on this list. I am not going to mention the locals because I don’t want them associated with what I am about to say; it isn’t their fault they’re on this list.
Now, the thing about this list is that it’s so wacky even some of those who undeniably belong on it will likely cringe when they read it.
Even the title is silly. “Best BBQ: Pit Masters and Grill Geniuses.” Geniuses? Really? When I think “genius,” I think Einstein. True, you don’t need to be Einstein to be an Einstein. And surely some of the people on this list turn out fine chicken thighs. But it’s unclear what, exactly, about grilling meat makes these folks rocket scientists.
But I nitpick. The word “genius” has been devalued; we sling it around like hash on a short-order cook’s grill top. (Exhibit A: The “Genius Bar” at Apple. In an earlier age, wouldn’t they just be repairmen?) So, Food & Wine can be forgiven its hyperbole.
Not so its use of the term, pitmaster. Granted, that once-venerated word also has been denigrated into meaninglessness. Yet its casual use here only underscores how little the magazine understands about barbecue. Back in the day, “pitmaster” was an honorific earned after a long apprenticeship. (For more on this, check out this lecture by the acclaimed food writer John T. Edge.) Nowadays, wood-enhanced ovens have made barbecue as commonplace as the word “genius.” Working one of those ovens is harder than it seems, but to regard every person who runs a barbecue restaurant as a “pitmaster” is like calling every college art major “Rembrandt.”
The real stickler, though, is this: Most of the restaurants on the list opened within the past year, more or less. No old barbecue joints are on the list. No Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, which dates back to at least 1910 and just won a James Beard Award in the “America’s Classics” category. Suffice to say, the omission of the Beatles, Stones and Dylans of the barbecue world is as glaring as it is (to put it nicely) confounding.
One of the restaurants on the list hasn’t even opened yet. You read that right. Go to French Blue’s Web site and smack-dab in the middle of the page, it says: “Opening May 29.”
As a guy who loves lists, barbecue and food magazines, I’m just saddened by this. This list is so sloppy that it’s an affront to lists. It detracts from any of those on it who may deserve an accolade. Beyond that, in this economic climate, magazines can’t afford to fritter away credibility.
One commenter wrote: “If I wanted information like this, I could stop at my local grocery store and pick up the Enquirer. . . never see me back here again.” Ouch.
My guess is that some genius at Food & Wine simply forgot to put the word “New” between the words, “Best” and “BBQ.” Would that make a difference? Undoubtedly.
But at least one of the restaurants has been open since 2008, according to that restaurant’s Web site. So who knows what Food & Wine intended. Suffice to say, this is one list not worth debating.
For a list that you can argue with (because it is, at its core, credible), check out Southern Living’s 2012 ’Cue Awards. For informed barbecue writing, read last year’s Saveur’s special barbecue issue, available free online .
Testosterone takes a back seat. In the overwhelmingly male world of competitive barbecue, Melissa Cookston stands out. She’s won 25 grand championships and competed on the TV show, “BBQ Pitmasters.” She added to her fame over the weekend when her Nesbit, Miss., team, Yazoo’s Delta Q, won the grand champion title at the granddaddy of cookoffs, the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Oh, and did I mention it was her second such triumph? She also won the title in 2010. Read the full results here.