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American barbecue is having a moment. Thanks in part to pitmasters such as Aaron Franklin in Austin and marketing campaigns from big food brands, the word "barbecue" — no matter how it's spelled — is part of this country's vernacular perhaps like never before. But for traditionalists in the South, where American barbecue flourished, there is cause for concern. Barbecue has rules, and they're being broken on a daily basis.
We should go ahead and get this out of the way: I am incredibly close-minded on the subject. In all other walks of life, I like to consider myself a progressive. There's no right way to be a person, and really, we're all just trying to figure it out as we go. No one should have to constrict their human experience just because it doesn't fit into someone else's idea of what is good and proper.
But let me tell you, when it comes to American barbecue — I certainly won't attempt to set ground rules for other barbecue cultures across the globe — there are absolute rights and wrongs. Sure, there's some room for interpretation, but good-intentioned "barbecue" lovers across this country are blaspheming day in and day out. Before declaring what barbecue isn't, it's best to define what it is: pork that's slow-cooked with smoke. And if you think that's an idiotic opinion from someone who happens to have a keyboard and internet connection at his disposal, consider this:
Good-intentioned "barbecue" lovers are blaspheming day in and day out.
"I mean, pig and burned wood charcoal, and that, to me, is it," says John Currence, the James Beard Award-winning chef based out of Oxford, Mississippi. "If you don't have both of those things, to my mind, you don't have what constitutes barbecue."
Currence was born in New Orleans, won the 2009 James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: South, and owns a restaurant empire expanding across the region from its home base in a small Mississippi college town. Since 2013, his City Grocery restaurant group has operated Lamar Lounge in Oxford, becoming the only smokehouse in the state to specialize in whole-hog barbecue. If anyone can claim to be an authority on the subject, it's someone with Currence's resume.
So why pork? Why does the meat have to come from a pig for a plate of barbecue to exist? Why doesn't smoked chicken, the dish that's most associated with Alabama white sauce, count? "And why in the world aren't smoked brisket and beef ribs — which have become the face of the modern barbecue movement in America — included in this conversation?" hordes of angry Texans ask as they sharpen their pitchforks.
Southern historian Don Harrison Doyle notes the first Europeans to come in contact with the Chickasaw, a people that resided on lands that would eventually become Mississippi, were Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his crew in 1540. De Soto and his comrades introduced the low-and-slow cooking style they had learned about during their time in Mexico, and they prepared a feast of the wild hogs that were found in the area. Writing his pro-pork manifesto for Esquire magazine in 1976, Jim Villas details how English settlers took up the method shortly after arriving in Jamestown. Pork was the obvious meat of choice during the early days of barbecue in North Carolina. Smithsonian Magazine notes pig farming was relatively cheap and low-maintenance, especially compared to the idea of domestic cattle. Carolinians didn't have to do much at all, allowing pigs to fend for themselves in the woods and then hunting them when meat was needed.
Even as the region changed over the years and cattle farming became a more reasonable proposition, I think there's a pretty clear reason why pork continued to dominate North Carolina and the rest of the South: It just tastes better. Any time I have this argument with someone who wants to extol the virtues of the cow, I see the same trump card played: "It takes a lot more talent to produce world-class smoked beef than world-class smoked pork." I will cede this point. Smoking brisket takes an incredible amount of skill, and as long as you follow a few basic rules, it isn't too hard to produce good smoked pork on your first try. But this just proves why porcine meats are so superior. They're already more delicious to begin with. Add some smoke and spice, and they're divine. Currence shared how the first taste of legendary Raleigh, N.C.-based pitmaster Ed Mitchell's ‘cue was "like a lightning bolt to my head."
This just proves why porcine meats are so superior. They’re already more delicious to begin with.
Anyone traveling through the region by automobile will be able to spot endless visual cues that, despite brisket's rise in popularity around the country, pork is still king all over the South. Get off the interstate and drive around long enough, and you'll wonder how so many barbecue joints can exist within a sparsely populated area. How do you pick the best one to stop for lunch? Tradition says it's all about the human-like qualities of the pig on the sign out front. "You assign a numeric score to a barbecue joint based upon the number of human-like things the pig on the sign is doing," writes Robert Moss, author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. "A realistic pig just standing there: zero points. A pig standing up and wearing a hat: two points. A standing pig in a hat and overalls strumming a banjo, winking, and turning a barbecue spit (or feasting on his brethren) — well, just pull right on over. You have found a winner." You'll notice there's no mention of looking for a sign with a banjo-picking cow.
For those who worship at the Church of Carolina Barbecue, the idea of classifying anything from a cow under the barbecue umbrella makes as much sense as calling a ground turkey sandwich a burger. One must specify that this item is a "turkey burger," because a traditional burger is made of ground beef. If you must refer to brisket as barbecue, at least have the decency to call it "Texas-style barbecue" when you're outside the Lone Star State. (I respect the fact that beef-lovers believe in a slow-smoking method that transforms a cut of meat into succulence that cannot be matched.)
What I will not abide is associating hamburgers, hot dogs, direct-heat charcoal grills, and, god forbid, gas grills with the subject. How these items became linked with the idea of barbecue is beyond me. "It was a misappropriation of that word, and I guess it came from the barbecue pit," Currence says. "My grandfather had this giant brick barbecue pit. It had smoking chambers in it, but it also had a hot grill where you could cook hamburgers and hot dogs. It came from the cross-utilization of those implements and more processed foods: ‘We're just going to go barbecue these hamburgers.'"
"Barbecue these hamburgers" is a phrase that never should be uttered. One does not barbecue hamburgers and hot dogs. In fact, one does not really "barbecue" anything. If you're preparing barbecue — a noun — you're smoking a whole hog or ribs or pork shoulder. Even many brisket-loving Texans who are about ready to ring my neck would agree barbecue comes from indirect heat and long cooking times. When you're throwing some burgers and dogs on the hot grill for a few minutes, you're "grilling out" or "cooking out." Furthermore, a party that involves friends and family coming over to eat grilled hamburgers and hot dogs is not "a barbecue" where I'm from. That's a cook-out. Actual barbecue must be on the menu for an event to actually be a barbecue.
Yes, Merriam-Webster offers a few broad definitions of the word that seem to cover basic grilling and anything under the sun that could be thrown on a grill. Unfortunately, the brains behind the dictionary recently destroyed their credibility by attempting to define a hot dog as a sandwich. This is obviously a debate for another time, but a hot dog is its own thing. It's not a sandwich. Are you really comfortable with the idea of "barbecuing some hot dog sandwiches"? Do not trust Merriam-Webster.
One does not barbecue hamburgers and hot dogs. In fact, one does not really "barbecue" anything.
CNN reporter Emanuella Grinberg, a New Yorker who now resides in Atlanta, tackled the subject of grilling vs. barbecue last year. Grinberg explains how other Southern language and comestible quirks ("y'all," sweet tea) were adopted with ease, but changing her definition of barbecue was a touch more difficult. "It would take years for me to see it [a Southerner's] way (or, more likely, give up the fight) after learning what barbecue means to the South," she wrote. And that gets to the heart of the matter. For so many Southerners, a burger or dog on the grill is all fine and good, but barbecue is something so much more.
Lest you think I'm an inflexible curmudgeon, I'm relatively open-minded when it comes to the subject of sauce. When it comes to augmenting chopped or pulled pork, I prefer the thin, sharp vinegar-and-pepper varieties of eastern North Carolina, but the inclusion of ketchup or tomato paste in the western part of the state and throughout much of the South can make for a nice accompaniment. The mustard-based products of South Carolina are tasty as well. And I would be remiss if I didn't put in a plug for white sauce, which comes from my native Alabama. Invented by Big Bob Gibson in Decatur some 90 years ago, it's based on mayonnaise, vinegar, and pepper, and it's never really been accepted outside the northern half of its home state.
Before I become Public Enemy No. 1 in the state of Texas, I will admit that smoked brisket, when done well, is phenomenal eating. It's a fact I've only learned recently. I have family in Texas, but because of my devotion to pork and poor brisket experiences, I've never bothered to give it a try in its homeland. It wasn't until an Eater event last November (in New York City of all places) that I tasted outrageously delicious brisket. John Lewis, who has experience at Austin shrines Franklin Barbecue and La Barbecue and now operates his own restaurant in Charleston, S.C., served it up. It was salty and smoky, fatty and moist. It raised my eyebrows and stopped me in my tracks. I had no idea brisket could be that good.
It was delicious, but it wasn't barbecue.
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Chris Fuhrmeister is Eater's evening news editor and editor of Eater Atlanta. Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia-based artist, illustrator, and former line cook with a lifelong obsession for unique regional cuisine.
Editor: Erin DeJesus