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Where’s the Beef: A Barbecue Rebuttal

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Pitmaster John Lewis argues barbecue is more than just pork

In honor of Barbecue Week, pitmaster John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue in Charleston took the time to respond to Eater editor Chris Fuhrmeister's op-ed about barbecue. Here's what he has to say.

Earlier this week, Chris Fuhrmeister wrote a pretty bold article claiming "brisket is not barbecue." Well, Chris, I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with your statement — and by the looks of social media, a whole lot of other people are with me.

Let me start by saying that Chris had some very nice things to say about my brisket, which he tasted last fall in New York at the Eater Awards. I was thrilled to see he enjoyed it. I love making people happy through food; it’s the best part of my job and the reason I especially love barbecue — it’s a cuisine that brings people together, a meal that people share, and most importantly, it’s a type of food that people have BIG opinions on. Clearly, Chris opened a can of worms and I reckon I’m about to do the same…

I really disagree with the statement "barbecue is having a moment." Barbecue is not having a moment, barbecue is just dusting off its shoulders. It’s like saying farms are having a moment. Barbecue, as Chris mentioned, has been around for ages and is a time-honored tradition in many households. If you asked most home cooks, they’d tell you barbecue is in their weekly meal rotation.

From backyard cookouts to massive 1,000-gallon pits, barbecue remains entrenched in American foodways. Chris has joined the chorus of self-proclaimed barbecue critics attempting to define what barbecue is with an unapologetic lack of understanding of what barbecue has become. To me, it’s not the animal that defines barbecue, it’s the cook.

Barbecue is not having a moment — barbecue is just dusting off its shoulders

I enjoyed the little history lesson Chris gave us — really, I did. I recently learned that my great-grandfather was a butcher and even found articles where he talked about barbecue, so I appreciated the due diligence Chris did for his article. There’s just one problem — all those facts he used to back up his statement about pork are ancient! Our food culture has changed so much in even the last decade that I don’t think you can look to the past for proof. We eat and enjoy food in a completely different way now, so the notes he found from 1540 don’t really resonate anymore.

There is no question, however, that American barbecue is a melting pot of cultures including West Africa, the Caribbean, and Eastern European countries. Reducing the origin of barbecue to one man in 1540 is a stretch at best. While it is possible that Hernando de Soto was the first European to cook a whole hog over an open fire in Mississippi, I doubt the men and women arriving to the New World gave much notice to Hernando’s cooking techniques, or for that matter, ever knew his name.

Chris states barbecue is best defined as "pork that’s slow-cooked with smoke." I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a fairly narrow-minded definition. Full disclosure: I have a 30-foot-by-30-foot mural on my restaurant of a glorious Black Angus cow proclaiming "All Hail the King," so you can probably guess my pick for best barbecue meat. I am from Texas, after all. I love how beef can soak up its seasoning and how smoke can get into every nook and cranny. Biting into a crispy, salty piece of brisket bark might just be my favorite thing to do. But to each his own; I barbecue some great pork, too, and I do love a plate of perfectly cooked pulled pork.

John Lewis slicing brisket at the Eater Awards.

I hope my family barbecues consisting of hot dogs and cheeseburgers were not just a mirage! If we were to embrace Chris’s concept of barbecue, we must erase all childhood memories of pillowing charcoal smoke and charred franks. So must go the beloved beef back ribs of West Texas, cooked with intense chiles and hot heat. Down with the barbecued mutton of Tennessee and racks of pork ribs cooked hot and fast in Alabama. Chris’s vision of a perfect barbecue vernacular will not be realized, as we all cook our own ways, with the meats and techniques we grew up with. Barbecue does not exist in a world of absolutes, but with the memories and traditions passed down from generation to generation.

The first cooker I built comprised of two metal trash cans and a grill grate from Home Depot. Through years of trial and error in the smokehouse and welding shop, I have earned a place in the barbecue community. It’s a diverse community of people who are obsessed with their craft. A people who have dedicated thousands of hours standing over an open flame, tending to the fire, and carefully and respectfully handling their product. The barbecue community is a welcoming one. While we may compete to be the best, or keep our "secret weapons" secret, we all want each other to do well. We drive across the country to try each other’s barbecue, and help each other at events. The uproar that Chris’s article created was just a response from that tight-knit community.

Chris, I hope we can still be friends. Atlanta isn’t too far from Charleston – come visit and your meal is on me. I’ll make you a believer.

John Lewis owns forthcoming restaurant Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, SC. See all of Eater's barbecue coverage here.