Mass Barbecue is the Invasive Species of Our Culinary Times
From the colonial era well into the 20th century, large public barbecues were an institution across the South, from the Chesapeake eventually to Texas. Although these occasions could be linked to campaigns or celebrations of one kind or another, they could also be just an excuse for people to get together, to eat and perhaps to drink, dance, and gamble, as well. (George Washington won eight shillings playing cards at an Alexandria barbecue in 1769.) Often whole communities turned out. When New Bern, North Carolina, held a barbecue to celebrate the Treaty of Paris, a Spanish visitor marveled that “there was a barbecue (a roast pig) and a barrel of rum, from which the leading officials and citizens of the region promiscuously ate and drank with the meanest and lowest kind of people, holding hands and drinking from the same cup.” He added, “It is impossible to imagine, without seeing it, a more purely democratic gathering.” A white Alabamian claimed in the 1820s that at barbecues sometimes even “slavery forgot its chain” and “the tawny sons of Africa danced, sung, and balloeed [sic].” (He denounced these scenes of “unbounded license” and called for their abolition, but nobody paid attention.)
Although big public barbecues can still be found (they’re more decorous these days), 20th-century refrigeration and automobiles made it possible to have restaurants that serve barbecue every day, not just on special occasions, and today that’s where most barbecue is eaten.
Fifty or 60 years ago it was easy to describe a typical barbecue place. At its simplest it was a workingmen’s “joint” that probably sold beer; at its fanciest it was the kind of place that attracts the after-church crowd; but often it was simply the community barbecue brought indoors, feeding customers of all sorts and conditions. Before the 1960s, of course, restaurants seated either black or white customers, not both, but many sold take-out for customers of the other race. In fact, some sold take-out only, but most had at least a few tables, perhaps as many as a score, and many had curb service. If it was on a highway, it might have had drop-in business from passers-by, but it was not a “destination”: it served the small town or city neighborhood in which it was located. Often it was owned and operated by someone whose name was on its sign and who was usually found on the premises. If it had waitresses (or, rarely, waiters), they tended to be characters. The barbecue was cooked with heat and smoke from wood or coals.
Until the 1960s or so, most barbecue restaurants fit that description, but since then things have become more complicated.
It’s easier to generalize about mid-century barbecue restaurants than about mid-century barbecue. Different communities had different traditions—whole hog in eastern North Carolina, mustard sauce in parts of South Carolina, mutton in Owensboro, “dry ribs” in Memphis, beef brisket in Texas, and so forth. Some of those traditions are actually of surprisingly recent origin, but they dictated what meats to cook and how to cook them. As Sam Jones of the Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, once put it: “When you come here it’s not what you want, it’s how much of it.” Barbecue traditions even became markers of local identity, as the endless controversy between Piedmont North Carolina (tomato) and eastern North Carolina (no tomato) illustrates. The Texas-Carolina beef-versus-pork war is another example.
This vernacular form of barbecue we can call folk barbecue. Like other aspects of folk culture, it is tied to particular places; slow to change; inherited by communities, not created by individuals. Barbecue cooks have been esteemed for their skill, not their originality. As Deano Allen of Deano’s Barbecue in Mocksville, North Carolina, once said, “People ask me why I do things this way and I say it’s because everybody else always did it.”
Lately, however, these traditions and the related constraints have begun to give way. To control temperatures, reduce fuel and labor costs, and placate insurance companies, for instance, many places—most places in the Carolinas—now cook with no wood whatsoever, not even chips to produce a little smoke, which raises the question of whether their product is barbecue at all. (The Campaign for Real Barbecue calls it “faux ’cue,” but there is no applicable truth-in-packaging law.)
Another change reflects changing demand. In many parts of the South, migration has brought people from places with different ideas (or none) about what barbecue is. In response, many whole hog or pork shoulder places in the Carolinas have added ribs and even beef brisket to their menus; in Texas, places that proudly served their meat without sauce have begun to offer it as an option, on the side; and so forth. The customer may not always be right but even if he’s wrong, he’s a customer.
In a recent article for Garden & Gun, Kathleen Purvis suggested that the folk barbecue place may be an endangered species. Lamenting the closing of many North Carolina landmarks dating from the 1960s and before (most recently Chapel Hill’s Allan & Son and Wilber’s in Goldsboro), she observed, “It’s tough to make a living off a $4 chopped-pork sandwich, especially if you have to chop down a tree to cook it.” For the time being, though, despite these closures, inroads, and fallings from grace, plenty of old-time places can still be found. Hundreds of barbecue cooks across the South still labor long and hard to serve the barbecue of their people, at a price that all can afford. But theirs is no longer the only game in barbecue town.
In a 1953 essay in Diogenes, Dwight Macdonald wrote about folk culture, high culture, and popular culture. I suggest that there are now corresponding sorts of barbecue. Lately, we’ve seen the rise of what could be called haute barbecue (which sounds marginally less silly than “high barbecue” and allows easy puns like “haute ’cue-sine”). Haute barbecue differs from folk barbecue in the same ways that high culture differs from folk culture generally. While folk barbecue is passed on by tradition and tied to locality, the haute variety is produced by individual chefs (that word is used without irony) who feel free to put their own stamp on what they cook. High culture is also produced for elite audiences, usually urban and often international; just so, Purvis observes, “Instead of small towns and country crossroads, the new barbecue temples are in cities, where they can draw more customers, both locals and visitors, who don’t blanch at a $10 sandwich and a $16 mixed-meat plate.”
“They charge more for food that’s worth more,” she writes, because these are “artisan places…pursuing barbecue with the intensity of a religion” and with great attention to details of ingredients and technique. Meat is likely to be “locally-sourced” and “pasture-raised,” cooked with wood or wood coals (no “faux ‘cue” here). Beyond that, however, haute barbecue can take different forms. Tradition may be only a starting point, if that.
Some haute barbecue chefs are neo-traditionalists, fundamentalists who cook locally traditional meats in traditional ways, but aim to do it perfectly. Austin’s Aaron Franklin, who won a James Beard award for his brisket in 2015, epitomizes the type. Side dishes and desserts may be innovative, as they are at Southern Smoke in Garland, North Carolina, and The Beast, in Paris (the French one), but the barbecue itself scrupulously adheres to tradition. Thomas Abramowicz at The Beast says, “I think the sides can be and deserve to be adapted a little to suit the French palate,” but, he says, “I won’t compromise on the meat.” His barbecue is the genuine central Texas stuff he learned to cook by apprenticing himself to a pitmaster in Taylor.
As Abramowicz demonstrates, one can be a neo-traditionalist in a place that has no tradition by simply importing a tradition from somewhere else. Others do the same: Buxton Hall in Asheville, North Carolina, for instance, cooks whole hogs, eastern North Carolina style, although it is more than 200 miles west of Raleigh. Chef Michael Symon takes a different approach: his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, has no barbecue tradition either, but he has set out to give it one. At Mabel’s BBQ Symon now serves “Cleveland-style” barbecue, using a local mustard in his sauce, seasoning with eastern European spices, and cooking with local fruitwood.
Just as classical music can incorporate themes from Negro spirituals or Hungarian folk dances, haute barbecue can take local traditions and adapt them, sometimes by blending them with other traditions. Latin or Asian influences are most common here. In Austin, for instance, Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ offers a classic central Texas chopped brisket sandwich with pickles and onions alongside a smoked brisket taco “with sea salt lime guacamole and tomato serrano salsa.” In Atlanta, Heirloom Market BBQ honors the Korean heritage of one of its owners by offering ribs and pulled pork marinated in gochujang and cooked in a Texas smoker, served with kimchi slaw and collard greens in miso. (Incidentally, these two establishments illustrate the point that haute barbecue does not necessarily mean high prices or a “fine dining” setting.)
All of these places stand in some relation to various folk barbecue traditions, but what’s being announced by a Florida newspaper in an article headlined, “New chef-inspired barbecue restaurant opens,” is a different matter. Here we are in the presence of barbecue Protestantism, with an emphasis not on the traditional liturgy but on the barbecue equivalent of sermon and extemporaneous prayer. At these places, you’re in the hands of the preacher. Floating free of any recognizable tradition, they may cook strange cuts, exotic meats, or even vegetables; put coffee or puréed blueberries in their sauces; and in general attempt to present their customers with exciting new experiences. Creativity is expected and rewarded. Two British specimens I’ve sampled are PittCue in London and Smokeworks in Cambridge, but other examples are legion, and there are new ones every week.
Another emergent type of barbecue we can call, after Dwight Macdonald, mass barbecue. Like mass culture in general, it is market-driven, shaped to maximize demand, and it changes when the market changes. As I mentioned earlier, some local places are trying to cater to migrants “from away” by fixing what these newcomers want. (Picnic, a neo-traditionalist whole-hog place in Durham, has added ribs and beef brisket to its menu under the heading “Non-Native Barbecue.” I think “Not from Around Here” would be better.) But we’ve also begun to see new places that barely acknowledge local traditions, or treat them as just one of many equally worthy options.
The logic of mass culture is that it should be the same everywhere, so it’s not surprising that mass barbecue establishments are often chain restaurants, standardized and insensitive to place. Some chains are anchored in local styles, but serve it in places that have their own. Dickey’s serves the barbecue of central Texas in North Carolina, for instance, while Red Hot & Blue serves Memphis barbecue in Texas. Most mass barbecue establishments, however, seek the broadest possible market by offering what I call an “International House of Barbecue” menu that mixes and matches all sorts of meats with a variety of sauces. Have it your way. The customer is always right. Kathleen Purvis calls the mass barbecue chains and independent restaurants that emulate them “fad barbecue restaurants,” places “where you can pile Texas brisket, Memphis ribs, and Carolina chopped pork all on one plate. You can find versions in any city in the South now—look for vintage license plates on the walls and Edison bulbs dangling over the bar taps with craft brews.” (Dwight Macdonald discussed the intimate relation between mass culture and kitsch.)
This “polyamorous” style (as Hanna Raskin calls it) is actually native to Kansas City, a Johnny-come-lately in the barbecue world that seems to be taking over. It is no accident that this is the sort of barbecue cooked in competitions and most often seen on television: the Kansas City Barbeque Society is the major sponsor of barbecue competitions nationwide, and its rules require that competitors, wherever they may be, cook pork butt and ribs, beef brisket, and chicken. (Kansas City-style sauces are not required, but always win.)
Folk, haute, and mass barbecue are not distinguished from each other by quality; each can be good, mediocre, or flat bad. Nor is it a matter of technique: many folk barbecue places in the Carolinas now cook entirely with gas or electricity; most haute barbecue places cook with wood; and most mass barbecue places at least use hybrid cookers with wood chips to produce smoke. The differences are in how each form relates to local barbecue traditions. To summarize: folk barbecue is tradition-driven, geographically specific, and diverse. Different locales have different menus, each with few choices. Haute barbecue is chef-driven, reflecting the tastes and interests of individual cooks. Some choose to adhere to local traditions and (as they see it) perfect them; others express themselves with innovative departures from tradition. Different establishments have different menus, perhaps changing often. Mass barbecue is market-driven, seeking the broadest possible appeal and geographical uniformity. Ideally, in this model, there will be one menu with many choices, the same everywhere.
Haute barbecue can exist comfortably side by side with folk and mass barbecue because it is not competing for the same clientele. Patrons of haute barbecue are for the most part people who wouldn’t otherwise eat barbecue. But the relation between folk and mass barbecue is more troubling.
A parable: In England, the homely native red squirrel is being driven out by the aggressive and invasive North American gray variety. Peter Coates writes that grays are the Red Delicious apples of the squirrel world; red squirrels are like endangered old-time local varieties with “peculiar names like Polly Whitehair and Bloody Ploughman.” What’s true of apples and squirrels is also true of barbecue. An ecologist would say that we’re seeing decreasing biodiversity, increasingly uniform ecosystems. Mass barbecue is the invasive species, and its progress seems to be relentless.
I have a problem with that. For one thing, if the climax stage of the barbecue landscape leaves no room for folk barbecue it will mean the end of the community barbecue tradition. Purveyors of mass barbecue may claim that they offer something for everyone, but it’s not really for everyone. Lawyers and construction workers, cops and college students, cowboys and hippies, preachers and sinners, rich and poor, black and white—all kinds of people used to gather in folk barbecue places like Stamey’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, to eat $4.00 barbecue sandwiches for lunch, but at the International House of Barbecue the prices are higher and the “ambience” is thoroughly middle-class. (The old tools and patent medicine signs on the walls probably came from a decorator.) A guy with his name stitched over his pocket would be out of place.
Moreover, the triumph of mass barbecue will mean that you can’t tell where you are by what you’re eating, and that will be a shame. Peter Coates writes that concern for the red squirrel “entails the same commitment to the survival of local heritage, community identity and the ethos of diversity that invests the championing of local cheeses and apples against the tasteless universalism of international agribusiness.” Well, some of us feel that way about local barbecue traditions. I’ve lived in North Carolina for 60 years, but I love Texas barbecue—in Texas. I love Memphis barbecue in Memphis, Kansas City barbecue in Kansas City, and even mustard-sauced South Carolina barbecue, in South Carolina. Barbecue helps to put the there there. Places that try to serve barbecue from everywhere are really serving barbecue from nowhere, for people from nowhere, and I say to hell with it.
John Shelton Reed’s contributions to barbecultural studies include Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue (written with his wife, Dale Volberg Reed) and Barbecue: A Savor the South™ Cookbook. He is co-founder and Éminence Grease of the Campaign for Real Barbecue (TrueCue.org).