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.
Shahin will join the Free Range chat at noon on Wednesday. Submit your questions. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.