Barbecue, a topic to chew on
By Jim Shahin,
Is barbecue dying?
By all appearances, evidence to the contrary abounds. Competitions are bigger than ever. Restaurants continue to open across the country. The down-home food even has its own TV series in Destination America’s “BBQ Pitmasters.”
But with all that comes a certain homogenization; is that a spike to the heart of such a fiercely regional American cuisine?
Those questions, in some fashion, were at the center of a barbecue symposium held in mid-October in Oxford, Miss., by the Southern Foodways Alliance, a nonprofit organization of scholars, restaurateurs, writers and passionate eaters that explores food issues related to the South.
Perhaps the most illuminating moment about the direction of barbecue came after a debate by actors portraying Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
“Lincoln” argued for a big tent. “Mo’ barbecue, mo’ better,” he said.
“Douglas” took the position that modernity threatened the food and its culture. “The past must be preserved,” he declared.
The moderator asked the crowd to vote by applause for the position they supported. Their enthusiasm was evenly split, and a draw was declared. The tie vote seemed to underscore the deep divide among Barbecue Nation’s passionate denizens.
The Lincoln-Douglas show occurred Saturday, the last night of the symposium. Embracing change vs. protecting tradition was at the core of further questions: Is barbecue losing its regional identity? If so, does that matter? Does the national growth of the cuisine signal its demise or its vigor?
With Southern barbecue having traveled from its ancestral home to every corner of America and been copied like a culinary Xerox, the talk of where barbecue is headed was taken seriously. For those who think about food as an emblem of culture, this 15th annual symposium was thought-provoking, and, for this participant, even enthralling.
SFA is under the umbrella of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, an organization at the University of Mississippi that studies the region. The group held a barbecue-themed symposium a decade ago, but its director, John T. Edge, knew it was time to re-examine the cuisine.
“I really think it is the most totemic of our foods,” says Edge, a James Beard Award-winning writer. “With the rapid change of barbecue over the last 10 years, [I felt] we just had something more to say about it.”
Apparently, he was right. The symposium, whose attendance was capped at around 380 and cost nearly $600 to attend, sold out in 12 minutes.
There were readings by novelists, a panel about farm workers’ rights, the environment and heritage meats, and even a multimedia puppet show. And of course there was food.
Some of the dishes were traditional, such as the whole hog prepared by third-generation pit master Sam Jones of the celebrated Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C., and pork ribs by top pit master Desiree Robinson of Memphis’s highly regarded Cozy Corner. Others had a modern spin, such as the beef ribs served with chimichurri sauce, dished up by Dallas pit master Tim Byres of the acclaimed Smoke restaurant.
There was also bold experimentation, starting with the multicourse, Florida-inspired meal that included fried chicken liver banh mi with smoked pig’s head, devised by former Sunshine Stater Vinny Dotolo, now the chef at Animal in Los Angeles. Perhaps the most audacious culinary show was the all-vegetarian, family-style luncheon that began with barbecued popcorn; continued with mustard greens and crispy okra dressed with benne-tahini dressing, smoked tomato pie and whipped corn cream; and, after several more dishes, concluded with pumpkin hummingbird cake with peanut custard. Chef Ashley Christensen, who masterminded the meal, earned a standing ovation.
The foods reinforced what barbecue has become: something larger than its image of meat slathered in sauce. “Our mission is not to preserve the South in amber,” Edge says. “The idea of progress in the South is in our DNA.”
That message was clear in the presentations. Novelist Monique Truongread a “love letter” to a barbecue joint in North Carolina that explored the culture clash she experienced as a transplant at age 7 from her native Vietnam.
Gustavo Arellano, author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” (Scribner, 2012) and the “Ask a Mexican” syndicated column, talked about the changes to barbecue that the American South will soon experience as a result of widespread Mexican immigration.
“The barbecue traditions of Mexico are coming to America,” he said, noting that slow-roasted goat and lamb’s head wrapped in maguey leaves are likely to start appearing commercially. “I guarantee you that they are doing their barbecue traditions at [their American] home.”
New York restaurateur Eddie Huang provided an overview of the similarities between Southern barbecue and Chinese food, such as the mix of savory and sweet in the same dish, in an address he subtitled a “guide to smoked meat.”
Documentary filmmaker Joe York presented a short movie that touched on race and gender. Called “Helen’s Bar-B-Que: ‘I Am the Pitmaster,’ ” it depicted Helen Turner, a black woman, shoveling hot coals beneath roasting meats at her eponymous barbecue joint in Brownsville, Tenn. They, too, each received a standing ovation.
Among the cultural examinations there were paeans to primal, low-and-slow meat. “I became a fiction writer, I’m convinced, because of barbecue,” novelist George Singleton told the crowd before reading a hilarious account of childhood misadventures. “Something about barbecue fueled my imagination.”
Poet Jake Adam Yorkread moving poems dedicated to the historical relevance of barbecue: “[T]he smoke from the grill/is the smell of my father coming home/from the furnace and the tang/of vinegar and char is the smell/of Birmingham, the smell/of coming home, of history, redolent/as the salt of black-and-white film/when I unwrap the sandwich/from the wax-paper the wax-paper/crackling like the cold grass/along the Selma to Montgomery road. . . .”
But all the analysis and homage only raised more questions. This was most telling in a Socratic dialogue between two eminences of barbecue, writers John Egerton and Lolis Elie. A small sample:
Egerton: “Does Southern barbecue, like Southern fried chicken, now exist only in the memory of senior citizens of the region and in the fast-food chains that reach around the world?”
Elie: “Now that the Oxford English Dictionary has modernized itself to include such terms as Google, LOL, OMG and IMHO, shouldn’t we modernize the definition of barbecue to include such proteins as salmon and tofu?”
Egerton: Now that we have easy access to heirloom pigs, roasted over charcoal made from virgin timber, and organic collards served on fine china, is slaw-capped barbecue, served in a sandwich, wrapped in a tissue, still a resonant symbol of the modern South?”
Elie: “If the side dishes at one of the new barbecue places in New York are 10 times better than the side dishes at one of the traditional barbecue places in Alabama, and the meat at the Alabama place is only twice as good as at the New York place, is it not true that the New York place is the better restaurant?”
I came away thinking that barbecue is at a real crossroads — one that not even a Lincoln-Douglas debate can resolve.