For the pages of the Food section last week, I wrote a column on what you might call a blasphemy.
The article explored fusion barbecue or gourmet barbecue or, simply, the new ’cue. It was about experimentation by chefs who pair slow-smoked meats (a.k.a. barbecue) with everything from pasta to kimchi.
It is rare that a story unites everyone who reads, but this one did. It seemed to, anyway, judging by the comments: They were uniformly negative.
Cleverly ridiculing the whole concept, one person wrote: “Funny little food made of smoked rodent cheek and rumor of carrot, breathlessly placed on baby leaf of daffodil and finished with a droplet of chanterelle and roasted bat ear barbecue sauce with dolphin milk Parmesan chip.”
Another said, “It’s just wrong, like paying a lot for blue jeans.”
A third opined, “Do the hipster elitists have to ‘improve’ everything? Stupid.”
May is National Barbecue Month. I glanced back at a column I wrote last year about the shebang. Seems I agreed with the commenters. I related the story about my first date with my future wife at Stubb’s Bar-B-Que in Austin a quarter century ago, and I extolled “the beauty of simplicity.”
But then I added: “Things change. Not just in barbecue, but in life. For the most part, I suppose, that’s good. Or, at least inevitable.”
As with love, barbecue is in the eye of the beholder. It’s pork. And beef. It’s sauced. And unsauced. There are as many variations as there are people who experience it.
Is the fancy, experimental stuff dished out by trained chefs a fad, a trendy way to (literally and metaphorically) play with fire? That’s a question I can’t answer. Indeed, I gave up a long time ago trying to arbitrate the definition of barbecue. It is a wearying debate that, owing to the passionately held beliefs of Barbecue Nation(s), results in more heat than light.
What I do know is that today’s traditional barbecue is not the same as yesterday’s traditional barbecue. The word “barbecue” is derived from the word “barbacoa” of the Taino people of Hispaniola (today’s Haiti and Dominican Republic), who, as described by Columbus, cooked food over a platform of green sticks.
Notice I said “food” and not pork or beef. Columbus introduced hogs to the Americas during his second voyage in 1493. Spaniards in the 1500s brought cattle to the Americas.
Even if we accept that barbecue means Southern barbecue, which, in turn, means the pork and beef favored in Southern states, the meat back then was typically smoked over trenches dug in the ground. That is, open pits. Most barbecue today is cooked in closed pits. (And, commercially, in wood-enhanced gas ovens, which the marketing gurus call pits.)
Sauces range from the eastern North Carolina pepper-vinegar to Kansas City’s tomato-based sauce to South Carolina’s mustard sauce to Alabama’s white sauce. Texans, for its part, generally prefer sauce on the side, eschewing the notion that it is integral to barbecue.
Now comes this wacky stuff. Here, now, comes National Barbecue Month. Love the change or hate it, barbecue will always be something more than what it used to be.
The clock is ticking. There’s still time to enter the second annual Smoke Signals Barbecue Sauce Recipe Contest. Win bragging rights and prizes, including a spot as honorary judge and the entry of your sauce into the Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle, where you will receive a trophy if you win the Smoke Signals contest. You also could win a tour of barbecue restaurants with yours truly.
The deadline for entries is Wednesday, May 2. Details are here.