Dear Whoever Is in Charge of Coming Up With Stuff to Advance America’s Global Agenda:
First, I’d like to say that with your recently launched American Chef Corps, which, as I understand it, will send hoity-toity U.S. chefs around the globe to cook hoity-toity food at hoity-toity diplomatic dinners, you are to be applauded for recognizing a universal human truth: In the words of Virginia Woolf, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Perhaps one should add, “or politic well.”
But here’s my beef: Where are the barbecue guys?
Granted, there are a few who include barbecue on their menus. But that’s like saying rain is snow because both have moisture in them.
A fine-enough start, but the list should have included some of America’s leading smokers. But before we look forward to an expanded Chef Corps, let’s look back.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the State Department tried a similar program, except with music. It exported American culture through the country’s indigenous music, jazz. The “ambassadors” included Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington, among others.
There was something tragi-comic about sending prominent black artists around the world to extol the virtues of democracy and equality when they couldn’t buy a house in most neighborhoods or even play on some stages in America. But the effort to spread American values via music, especially as a way to defeat communism, was a winning idea.
One reason why, as surely you know, was because the musicians performed for general audiences. Wrote Ellington in his book, “Music Is My Mistress” (Doubleday & Co., 1973), about a 1966 concert in Dakar:
When the time for our concert comes, it is a wonderful success. We get the usual diplomatic applause from the diplomatic corps down front, but the cats in the bleachers really dig it. You can see them rocking back there while we play. When we finish, they shout approval and dash for backstage where they hug and embrace us, some of them with tears in their eyes. It is acceptance at the highest level, and it gives us a once-in-a-lifetime feeling of having truly broken through to our brothers.
If it is hearts and minds you want to win, go through the everyman belly. Send out the keepers of the flame of one of the truly indigenous American culinary forms, the jazz of food: barbecue.
Show off the self-made pitmasters who toil through long nights at a craft that defines this nation’s ethic of hard work and community spirit. A bonus? You don’t have to be a physicist to understand it or a gourmand to appreciate it, just as you don’t have to be a music scholar to love jazz.
Other nations, to be sure, use fire and smoke to cook meats. But each culture’s approach is unique, whether in flavorings or techniques or both.
America has its own, and, heaven knows, it is a source of perennial debate. But there is little argument that the country’s barbecue homeland is the South. Foods and methods have changed since it was first described during a Columbus voyage. There is pulled pork in North Carolina, ribs in Memphis, beef in Texas, a little of everything in Kansas City. And some might set the meat directly over smoldering embers, others at the other side from the fire, but the basics remain intact: cooking low and slow over wood.
I would say only that you should first consider the practitioners of the most traditional form of this art, the guys and gals working in wood-only pits. Here are some suggestions, woefully incomplete, but enough to get you started (and get others complaining about who I left out), one from each capital to keep things fair:
* Texan Tootsie Tomanetz (Snow’s BBQ)
* Georgian Myron Mixon (barbecue competitor and “BBQ Pitmasters” judge)
* North Carolinian Sam Jones (Skylight Inn)
* South Carolinian Rodney Scott (Scott’s Bar-B-Que)
* Memphisian Desiree Robinson (Cozy Corner)
* Kansas City pitmaster Jeff Stehney (Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue)
* Pat Bosley from Owensboro, Ky. (Moonlite Bar-B-Q)
Let me close by saying that there exists a weird idea that if a chef “cooks Southern” or is from a Southern state or has something called barbecue on his menu, then, somehow, that chef is a pitmaster and his restaurant is a barbecue joint.
That is just crazy talk. If someone tells you that, don’t listen to him. He is trying only to obfuscate. Which, as we all know, is a main course in politics.
Maybe a real plate of authentic barbecue will help fix that.
Send your tips, advice and news to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter @jimshahin.