Did you know that, in Wisconsin, tourists can visit a mustard museum? There’s a pizza museum in Philadelphia and a cocktail museum in — where else? — New Orleans. There are museums seemingly for every conceivable foodstuff, including, perhaps most famously, Dr. Pepper. That’s right, a museum for a soda pop.
You know what there isn’t? A barbecue museum.
A week and a half ago, the American Royal inducted three people into something it calls a Barbecue Hall of Fame. In any real sense — that is, a building or even, for that matter, a Web site — the thing doesn’t exist. Which, as I noted in this space last week, is probably just as well, since only one of the inductees merits the honor.
A Barbecue Hall of Fame seems like one of those “doh!” ideas. Obvious and simple. But it is deceptively complicated. The problem begins, as with everything in barbecue, with definition. (Just what is barbecue? That question will turn an ordinary man into a Talmudic scholar-meets-professional wrestler.) Yet it is important to have a clear sense of what, exactly, a Hall of Fame is, and what it is for.
A Hall of Fame is kind of a museum, but not really. It may include memorabilia and artifacts, like a museum, but in the end, it is really about people who have achieved something special in a particular field, be it baseball or barbecue. It is worth noting, in fact, that the national pastime’s paean to itself is called the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and that its Web site is divided into the categories Hall of Famers and Museum.
A Barbecue Hall of Fame might also divide itself into two parts, one for competitors who achieve something measurable by winning trophies, the other to mark the historical importance of this indigenous American cuisine and its ongoing influence on the nation’s culture. This column focuses on the museum.
I’ll not bore you here on all that. Suffice to say the cuisine has touched almost every aspect of American life, from politics to race to culinary trends, since first recorded during a Columbus voyage.
My suggestion is both grand and simple: First, create regional museums in the four recognized barbecue capitals — North Carolina, Kansas City, Texas and Memphis — that bore deeply into that area’s barbecue history. Second, erect a national barbecue museum in the nation’s capital, perhaps as a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, that spans those regions, and others, and provides a broad view of the meaning of barbecue to the country.
If the Smithsonian can include Julia Child, who popularized French cooking in America (and whose exhibit, I hasten to add, I fully support), surely it can consider adding space for that most American of foods, barbecue.
The national museum might include everything from types of barbecue apparatus, like a facsimile of a trench, a backyard kettle grill and various smokers; a multimedia showroom that includes renderings of the Taino platform of green branches to documentaries about barbecue; a political section that provides information about the cuisine’s relationship to significant events, such as the mass barbecue rallies of the 1800s and LBJ’s “barbecue diplomacy”; a room dedicated to pitmen, both famous (Arthur Bryant, Pete Jones, Louie Mueller, among others) and the ordinary stiffs who work long hours in obscurity perfecting their craft; a room that examines barbecue’s racial and ethnic contributions; an area for competitions; a cafe; special events, such as a guest-lecture series and cooking lessons from guest pitmen.
This is just a sketch for an idea, and, at that, not a new one. Others have suggested similar proposals. One of the best I’ve seen is by blogger Dan Levine at BBQJew.com, who provides details for a North Carolina barbecue museum that works as a basic template. There are doubtless other thoughts.
Obviously, raising funds for both the regional and national museums presents a considerable challenge. But industry underwriting, federal and state money, and personal contributions could combine to help make the idea a reality.
I’d be interested in your thoughts. To continue the dialogue, I hope you will leave your comments below or e-mail them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Jim Shahin on Twitter at @jimshahin.