Jake Adam York
A Barbecue Journal Until I had moved to New York, the phrase good barbecue meant nothing to me.
In Alabama, there was only barbecue and a food either was or was not barbecue. Barbecue was ultimate good, and there were no degrees to perfection.
For years, we ate only at Bar B Q Bobs, a large A-frame joint as far across town as a place could be. It looked as though it been an International House of Pancakes at some point, and someone should have remembered or asked, but nothing not the strangeness of ski-lodge architecture in an Alabama town, not the chips or cracks in the veneered tables or booth-benches, not the absolute sequestration of the kitchen could make this seem important. As long as hickory smoke rose as from a thurible into the cathedral heights of Bobs, this could be nothing else but The Seat of Barbecue. At least a dozen other restaurants in town claimed barbecue in their names, but there was only one barbecue.Like religion, barbecue was pure. And purity, once accepted, will brook neither proof nor comparison.
Even outside the South, each house demands absolute faith in its pews. But without, dialogue ensues. Tradition requires the reverence. But when the scene isnt Southern, each barbecue seems not creation but re-creation whose fidelity must be assayed.In Chicago, blues radio, as much as tomato-based sauce, tells the story north from Mississippi, Memphis, St. Louis. Acoustic blues electrified is the old country amplified to city. In Syracuse, such blues and reds say Chicago, with its echoes of down-river cues blown over the lakes. In either place, the degree to which a joint can make you forget lake-effect is a measure of success.
But when you come back home, after tasting for its signs in lands so far removed, the scene has changed.
Now, you go to the other barbecues. You eat everything. You have taught yourself different kinds of kin, and now everythings related. You may not care for certain variations, but bloodline cannot be denied.
And if you prefer one house of worship, you can still pray in any temple.
This, anyway, explains how I became a catholic.
Off the Interstate, away from town, off the highway and through curves of residential streets until the smoke overwhelms. This is why you bring a guide.
You pull to a red house a house a neighborhood house roofed with smoke. In the gravel spread before the door you eye: a late-model Jaguar, a Jeep Cherokee, a 70-something Chevy Nova, a rusted-out 65 Ford Mustang, a BMW, a Honda Accord, a mongrel pickup cobbled from the parts of other trucks and held together in part by coat hangers.
Inside, the scene slowly comes to focus. At the dozen tables are: university deans, preachers, country boys, locals, construction workers, sorority girls, police.
Past the counter and the tables, in the rooms darkest quarter, a wall catches the pulse of the fire. And there, breaking the waves of amber light, still as any Buddha, is the man, the father Big Daddy, they call him of the cue.He sits if you make it out correctly on some sort of dark, wooden throne. The novitiate, watching the flame-light play across his face, catching the subtle twitches by which he oversees the pit, may be haunted:
Darknd so, yet shone
Above them all th Arch-Angel: but his face
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek .
He is Lord of the Fire, but his smoke is blessing, as you soon will know.
The benevolence requires a certain discipline, however:
NO POTATO SALAD, NO COLE SLAW
They call it Dreamland.
But when the plate comes, you believe. You believe it all.
My conversion enacts the history of the word.
The best etymology now suggests that barbecue originates in the Caribbean, moving from Carib through Spanish, into French and English in the Americas, where it has slowly evolved from barbacoa to barbecue and barbeque and bar-b-que and bar-b-q and bbq.
Along the way, it has harbored many senses. The primary Spanish sense, indicated by most dictionaries, is the grill probably originally a hatch of saplings used to suspend meat over a fire though barbacoa in contemporary new-world Spanish describes a slow-cooked meat and the method used to make it, usually a low-temperature long application of heat in a subterranean pit. At least one barbecue scholar suggests that this practice suggests the true meaning of the word; Smoky Hale, author of The Great American Barbecue and Grilling Manual (Abacus Publishing, 2000) has traced the word back to its roots in Taino, a Caribbean language, where in one form, barabicoa, it indicates a wooden grill, a mesh of sticks, and in another, barabicu, a sacred fire pit. Hale dismisses the other supposed lineages, including the French claim deriving barbecue from the phrase barbe à queue, from beard to tail, perhaps a description of a pig on a spit; Hale calls this etymology flagrantly fatuous Franco-poop. He also dismisses the argument that the words origins lie in the South American mainland, in the practices of now-extinct cannibal tribes. Hale is probably right, but his demonstration shows that, in its descent, the word has been everything to everyone.
But incarnations like bbq suggest that, whatever the derivation or elaboration, its whats on the tongue thats important the three sounds that not only survive all explanation and variance but assert themselves, consuming all instances into rule.
In this way, the word identifies itself as American. Indo-European languages developed by transmitting and elaborating a common tongue, each growing further from the root into its distinctive flower by adapting to local climates; in certain words you can detect the roots work at a distance, but you can never touch it directly. In the Americas, however, in barbecue, the process has been reversed. In the barbecue pits of American English the literal senses evolved in European languages have been set ablaze, then banked so we can reduce the word to essence, its most potent and most static flavor something like what Whitmans divine average, a truth expounded by all exponents, an E pluribus unum thats remade daily.
So it almost doesnt matter where or what you eat: as long as youre eating something with a tie to the tradition (however tenuous), youre eating or eating toward barbecue.
Even in the unlikeliest of places.
A few months ago, on a trip through Salt Lake City, a friend took me to his favorite taqueria Piedras Negras.
Hes long known of my taste for pulled pork, and when we knew wed be going through Salt Lake, he cooked up the plan. Like any good barbecue guide, he tortured me for hours with his descriptions as we wound through the Rockies. Hed put the ghost of pork on my tongue, then let it fade, only to resurrect it as it was about to die. It was so exquisite, I was sure that each wave of snow that slowed our progress over the crux of the Uintas and the Wasatch Mountains was part of a plan. He had read the weather and routed us accordingly.When we arrived in Salt Lake, I was deathly hungry, and I expected nothing short of a pork miracle. But though my friend had appetized me, he had not prepared me for what was about to unfold.
We pulled into a tiny strip of storefronts advertising imported goods, pawned goods, and Piedras Negras auspicious signs in my book. Conspicuous cleanliness draws energy from the preparation, where its better applied, which is why the best barbecue is often to be had out of old gas stations or cotton houses or abandoned International Houses of Pancakes and the like. This gritty little strip seemed to have its priorities straight, and by the time we touched the door, the smell confirmed my suspicions faint hints of smoke, the aroma of corn, air of cilantro, and the steamy smell of meat thats just reached a legal temperature.
The menu had an admirable simplicity. When ordering tacos you would choose your meat, which would come pulled or lightly shredded in a corn tortilla. A tray of salsas and other dressings would be provided separately. You had only to consider whether you wanted your pork in the form of carnitas (pulled) or pastor (marinated) or in chile verde, whether you wanted your beef barbacoa (shredded) or carne asada, or if you had a taste for tripa (intestine) or seso (brain).
When my carnitas arrived, I was transported. These tacos contained some of the best pork I have ever had ever. So soft, succulent, and with a little chipotle salsa, as smoky as any shoulder sandwich Id eaten back in Alabama. And only $1.25 a taco.
The scales fell from my eyes.
Smokey Hale chowing down in Oxford, Mississippi.
The revelation was enormous. And I wanted to tell everyone I knew. But I knew too well that barbecue dogma was alive and well and that my catholicism would not be welcome in too many quarters.
So, though excited, I was a little apprehensive when I traveled to Oxford, Mississippi, in October, for the Southern Foodways Alliances 2002 symposium: Barbecue: Smoke, Sauce, and History. I was slated to read some poems from a barbecue history of the U.S. Im now writing, including one that announces my Catholicism thus:
I wasnt sure how this was going to play out in front of folks like Smokey Hale, who has defined barbecue as meat cooked in the dry heat of wood coals at about the temperature of the boiling point of water.
whatever it may not be,
weve covered all it is. Vegetarian
exception opens eggplant, means tofus
the next horizon, purity an envelope
thats always opening.
|Hens in the pit at the Cozy Corner.|
I was, however, given hope well before the conference began.
My brother, who lives in Oxford, met me at the Memphis airport, saying we had to make a stop before Mississippi. We drove north, through three or four distinct neighborhoods, each progressively more affluent than the previous. Along the way, he identified the barbecue joints, past and present, which hed sighted while working on a documentary map of Memphis barbecue. Each name aroused my suspicions. Tops. Paynes. We cut west. The Bar-B-Q Shop .
We pulled us into what looked like an abandoned strip mall abandoned except for the end unit, the Cozy Corner, where you can watch the pitmasters work the Cornish hens in smokers lodged behind the counter.We talked a bit with Desiree, owner and widow of Raymond Robinson, the founder of the Cozy Corner, then ordered a full tray: a shoulder sandwich and a 4-rib plate with sides of beans and no lie barbecue spaghetti.
I had never even heard of barbecue spaghetti, and I was so amazed at the prospect, I only later recognized the auspicious signs the tang of hickory smoke, the fact that no two of the fluorescent tube lights were the same color (one even looked purple), or the twenty-year-old plastic tepee that identified us as the future consumers of order 14.
The pork sandwich and the ribs appealed directly to my Alabama tastes and were the best I had and have ever eaten in Memphis. Few meals have been as succulent or savory.
But the curious highlight was the spaghetti, of which I was initially skeptical. Quite simply, this was large vermicelli, cooked well past al dente (but not mushy at all) and sauced with the Cozy Corner formula wed enjoyed on the ribs. I tasted out of pure curiosity, but I finished the cup with sincere fascination. My kitchen is no stranger to the outré (home as it is to the crawfish-jambalaya pizza), and my tongue will never be accused of xenophobia, but as I was waiting for the meal to arrive, and as I savored my sandwich and ribs, I misjudged, misimagined this dish. Now I cant imagine a world without it. As we drove out of the Delta, into the swamps and piney-woods of north Mississippi, I harbored a new hope that width of my faith might find serious purchase among my fellows at the Foodways symposium. I had no idea .
The scene at Off Square Books.
The symposium began with a live broadcast of the Thacker Mountain Radio Show, a true variety show, aired from Off Square Books, on Oxfords famous square. After a few numbers by the Taylor Grocery Band, a string band, the host became Hank Sinatra for a food-inflected version of Very Good Year before ushering to the mic a succession of writers and musicians that included Nashville-based Kevin Gordon, whose solo set sent shivers through the room. In all that evenings Thacker Mountain Radio Show was a fine mix of the sublime, the parodic, and the bathetic a signal, I hoped, of things to come.
Despite its billing as the Aberrant Barbecue Supper, our evening meal made me even more comfortable. After a round of Cornish hens from the Cozy Corner in Memphis and barbecued shrimp prepared by the proprietors of the local Ajax Restaurant, we turned to deep-fried smoked ribs, presented by Bart Wood of Little Dooeys in Columbus, Mississippi a wonderfully executed treat I filed next to barbecue spaghetti in my notebook.
The symposiums prelude concluded with a short film fest, featuring Hush Hoggies Hush, a short documentary featuring a gentleman who taught his hogs to pray before eating, and Smokestack Lightning: A Day in the Life of Barbecue, a film partly based on Lolis Eric Elies book Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, which, like the Aberrant Barbecue Supper showed a number of different sides of barbecue. But in the closing minutes, when Keith Allen, the son of Allen & Son Barbecue in North Carolina, voices over, Its going to probably disappear, I started wondering again just where we were going.
Such oscillation, the close company of contraries, is, though, the nature of barbecue. Each saucier creates a balance of elements sugar or molasses sweet balancing hot pepper, vinegars sour balancing the sweet, smoke holding it all together a balance of contraries complicated into mutual relation.
|Waiting for the 'cue.|
So we ate fried smoked ribs and country-fried pork-loin sandwich and pulled pork between hoe-cakes. We ate smoked pork-cheek over rabbit-meat Brunswick stew. We ate barbecue ribs, pork shoulder, barbecued chicken, and North Carolina-style whole-hog barbecue. More than 200 kinds of sauce were drained or purloined in the weekends course, and the coleslaw consumption must have boosted the sale of cabbage futures tremendously. We listened as Lolis Eric Elie covered the nation in his Notes Toward a Geography of Barbecue, as Bob Garner claimed an origin for barbecue in the Carolina tobacco culture, as Robb Walsh discussed the emergence of sausage as a barbecue vehicle in Texas, and as Marcie Ferris discussed the barbecue traditions of Southern Jews.Even before Calvin Trillin handed down the law from a judges dais in the Lafayette County Court House on Sunday morning, I knew that what John Shelton Reed called barbeculture was much richer than I had ever imagined and that barbecue catholicism was not so strange after all.
Perhaps I overstate the case, because its not as if the symposium heard no dissent. Bob Kantor, proprietor of San Franciscos Memphis Minnies, expressed passionate concern over the overstretching of the term barbecue; after all, weve all had Mongolian or Chinese barbecue, but its not quite barbecue as we have come to think of it in America. And its not as if the weekend passed without the typical exchanges of barbecue partisanship one reading from the Gospel of Pork, another from the Book of Beef. Nor did I not hear someone say, Thats not barbecue.
But for the most part, such exchanges were made in an extremely friendly manner, and accommodation abounded. Someone jokingly explained the Texas preference for beef by observing that you cant catch a pig from a horse. And despite the occasional difference of opinion, I cant say that I ever saw anyone turn their nose up at any of the weekends tasty offerings or that there werent an abundance of happy faces. By and large, everyone seemed to feel, as I did, that he or she was deep in the greatest party in the world.
The positive atmosphere was a great relief, given my initial fears. But though comforted that I had not become some cynosure of resentment, I left with some new questions, some oscillations of my own.
I had seen and eaten a great deal of barbecue, and I knew it to be more multifarious than I had thought. But, given all this, just what was barbecue?
With this gnawing at me all the way to Denver, I kept falling back on what I knew for sure, and I couldn't help revisiting how wonderful the SFA symposium had been, and I began to wonder if barbecue wasn't just a form of accommodation, a kind of hospitality, after all.
Think about it.
Traditionally, what parts of the pig were involved, when there were pigs involved? Ribs, shoulders, butts not the sirloin or the tenderloin which is to say the tough cuts. What parts of the cow were involved, when cows were involved? The brisket, the rib, the head: again, not the softest cuts.
The art of cooking these cuts is the art of making a tough meat accommodating, making it soft and pliant and succulent, which means cooking it slowly.
The rule applies when talking whole-hog as well. If you think cooking a turkey is tough, youve never worked a whole pig. You got to be patient. Patience is what the meat demands. Its the only way to get those different cuts done at the same time.
Why cook such tough fare in the first place?
In the beginning because you were poor, and these were cheap, because for those for whom time is money these cuts cost too much. Somehow, though, if you find yourself on the bottom of any economy, no matter how hard or long you work, the thing you can spend most easily is time: time is how you make the unaffordable affordable. Its how you make the tough soften up, how you make the world accommodate you and how you accommodate yourself to the world in which you find yourself.
Hence the switch from pork to beef and from hickory to mesquite as the art moves west. Try finding a hickory tree in Arizona.
Hence the appearance of barbecued goat here and there. Of the occasional barbecued rattlesnake. What have you.
Some will worry, however, that accommodation is just whats killing barbecue, not whats keeping it alive.Back in Denver, I met up with Adrian Miller Director of Outreach for The Bell Policy Center, an author currently researching a work on African-American foodways and food traditions, and a fellow Southern Foodways Alliance member and barbecue symposiant with whom Id discussed barbecues past and future, after watching Keith Allen declare that barbecue was going to probably disappear.
|University of Mississippi Southern Studies students, part of the host of hosts.|
In Mississippi, Adrian had expressed some sympathy with Allens position, worrying that barbecue as we know it would probably disappear since there seem to be few willing to learn from the old masters. His visits to recently opened stands in Denver had re-convinced him. One restaurant seemed set on gas ovens and grills, another on a commercial smoker that gave so little smoke flavor the device should probably be renamed. And on this night in Denver, Adrian was sticking to his guns.
Wed eaten together before, most conspicuously at the Reverend Gene Washingtons Blest Barbecue of the Rockies in nearby Littleton where the smoke was abundant. The ribs fell off the bone, too tired it seemed to do anything but bequeath their bounty to the stomach of the next supplicant. Reverent Washington had taught them well, I can attest.
But on this night, the ribs at Brothers, right downtown, are fine, firm, and smoky. I can imagine no complaint.
Ill admit, in some ways Reverend Washington story is more attractive. He learned barbecue from his parents a Texas mother and an Oklahoma father and started cooking for his church on weekends and, when the taste caught on, opened Blest for the weekday traffic. Hes a genuinely charitable man and an excellent chef and a fine storyteller full of histories of his family and Denvers early barbecue days. Blests history indicates its Southern roots and involves an extended dialogue with Denvers own scenes.
This is exactly why Adrian is drawn to Washingtons story. Washington directly attributes his barbecue skills to his parents, who hail from points south and east. And Adrian is interested in what might be termed a foodways diaspora, in which the recipes for and the lore surrounding the best and most distinctive foods tell barely-recorded stories of the African-American cultures that make significant contributions to the record of American culinary innovation. Hes currently working on a series of books in which, if I understand him correctly, the African-American chef is one of the craftiest heroes of American food culture, responsible for much of what wed exclaim about today.
Because for him food is the medium for a largely recorded oral culture, Adrian is deeply interested in the continuities of food traditions, especially barbecue which, he informs me, keeps turning up in his family histories and in the stories of African-American cooks, including some of those provided by former slaves in the WPAs oral history project. His grandfather, he tells me, a railroad chef from Chattanooga, Tennessee, cooked the most incredible barbecue but passed on before Adrian could learn the secrets.
Direct lineage, Adrian argues, the passing of technique from mouth to mouth, is what keeps barbecue alive, is what keeps food and food culture alive. And hes worried that if the young stop listening to their elders, if they stop receiving the word and just start asking barbecue to accommodate itself to them and to the myriad wolves that beset the smokehouse door the FDA, for example, which now has, in addition to its general guidelines for meat preparation, its own official definitions of barbecue that the art will cease to be an art and will degenerate into a story-less world of commercial gas-powered smokers whose produce you could easily replicate in your own oven, whoever you are.
Brothers is a different story.Brothers began in Denver, a mere five years ago, and it has grown into the local cue-scape as it has won most of the areas major contests, including the rib showdown at the Denver Blues n Bones Festival, and has received superlative ratings from more of the citys reputable guides.
But for those interested in a joints bloodline, the menu provides little guidance. Brothers offers a Memphis-Style Pork Shoulder Sandwich, Saint Louis Ribs, Kansas City Beef Brisket, and hot links, a Texas treat. The menu is geographically conscious, and as it suggests provenance is partner to flavor, it invites all comparisons to the originals, literally asking any aficionado to assay their fidelity to Southern models.
But though each item is good Ive never had anything bad at Brothers its hard to tell where this comes from. The menus all over the map.
Theres a reason for this, of course. The brothers of Brothers, Chris and Nick OSullivan, are originally from Redding, England, and theyve lived in Colorado for little more than a decade. They cant have anything like Gene Washingtons barbecue heritage, with its deep familial roots. They cant even have anything like Adrian Millers barbecue heritage, with its tethers back to Arkansas and Tennessee, though the family recipes and techniques will not pass on.
Lacking the familial or geographical ties that might encourage (if not outrightly demand) them to make a certain kind of barbecue, the brothers OSullivan have traveled the U.S., eating everything. Nick explains, in a recent Denver Post article: Weve sampled everywhere, Texas, Memphis, North Carolina, Kansas City the major barbecue places, learning about flavor and technique and things like that.
This approach combining the best from different locales and regions has been called digital barbecue and compared, since the vocabularies are so similar, to hip-hop sampling. Barbecue samplers are often people like Nick and Chris, who are neither restricted nor supported by their barbecue lineage. They offer the best of everything theyve found.
Between ribs, I ask Adrian if the kind of barbecue displacement evidenced by Brothers bothers him, and he says yes.
This is important, he says. This is barbecue were talking about.
And barbecue is life, is family.
But Adrian admits that hes at an early stage of what he calls his barbecue journey, and he tells a story.
This past June, Adrian traveled to Austin on a barbecue field trip sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance. He was, he says, skeptical. He didnt believe in beef ribs, had never liked them, and, he says, was sure that hed never see a brother serving them up.
But all this changed at Crosstown Barbecue.
Here, he says, with a gleam in his eye, he had the best beef ribs of his life. He says he was doubtful, even when we noticed that the pit crew were all African-American, but the first bite changed his life.
He left Crosstown with several bags of ribs, which he says he ate for days and days and days. Now, he says, hell return any chance he gets.
And now, he says, he feels he has a lot left to eat, a lot left to learn. Before Texas, he says, he had never eaten barbecue outside Colorado.
Were about halfway through our second slab of ribs, and weve sunk into that blissful silence, the sound of the body coming to satisfaction, enveloped by it. And I cant stop thinking about Dreamland, about how the firmness of these ribs speaks Dreamland to me. The wallpaper of car-tags and the window-full of neon takes me back to Dreamlands Birmingham branch. I could forget Im in Denver.
At this point, Im ready to concede Adrians point about the paramount importance of place and lineage. I have returned home: these ribs have allowed me to travel back the roads of my own barbecue heritage. Barbecue is, wherever it travels, still Southern. The methods carry the subtle nuances of all who have ever practiced and passed them on, those touches that, as Adrian reminds me, tell the story of the food and hint at the lives that have shaped it along its way.
So I can accept Lolis Elie's explanation:
It is clear that barbecue existed and flourished in the American colonies long before the word barbacoa or the associated technique could have traveled eastward from Texas and played any significant role. In the eastern colonies the mingling of Native, Anglo, and African cultures produced a hybrid culture that included, among other things, barbecue.
(Smokestack Lightning by Lolis Elie, p. 29)
Almost everywhere Ive eaten barbecue, Ive found myself in the midst of such confluences. Its those sorts of combinations and accommodations that have, for me, defined the experience of eating barbecue.
As here, tonight, I accommodate myself to Adrians views, make myself a student to his history. As Adrian entertains my counter-assertion that, take twelve Southerners and put them on an alien planet capable of sustaining human life and, even if none of them have ever cooked it, they will eventually reinvent barbecue using the planets own unique materials.
There is, I think, despite how the Souths public histories contradict this sense, something particularly Southern about this sort of accommodation. It reminds me of the shit-talking my grandparents give each other, something like the dozens, in which each gets to perform his or her grievance, and each one wins. Something like the gentle ribbing that takes place in any barbecue joint, as when the waiter in Birmingham Dreamland asked my friend Paul, You ready to eat some ribs, little man?
Barbecue cant be barbecue without the play of contraries, and the South has always struggled with contraries. So barbecue will always, as long as it stands on such platforms, taste Southern.On the other hand, this scene has enough contradiction to go around. Were eating cue developed by these two English brothers, but if we peek behind the counter and look down the prep-line, everyone everyone is Hispanic. So deep as I am in my Dreamland reverie, now I cant stop thinking about Piedras Negras and wondering just how much barbacoas in my barbecue, just how brotherly these two lines might be after all, just how much accommodations at work behind the counter.
Once again, Im wondering just what barbecue is, where it comes from, and where its going.
Tonight, I only know one thing for sure. All the folks at Brothers couldnt be more accommodating. Theyve let me snoop around, take pictures, talk to just about everyone. Theyve brought the ribs to the table where Adrian and I are polishing down the bones. They call us by name.
If hospitality is a mark of the South, then they couldnt be more Southern, wherever theyre from. But if hospitality is not the mark, and if the logic in my equation is flawed, I cant care right now: the vinegars creeping up through my olfactory nerves, triggering something serious in the hippocampus, some way-back memory, some primal flavor.
This is good barbecue.
Jake Adam York is the poetry editor of storySouth.