A grease-covered, bespectacled pitster (pitmaster + hipster) by the name of Aaron Franklin is a semi-finalist for a 2015 James Beard Award in the category of Best Chef Southwest. Let that sink in for minute. The Beard Foundation has not historically made room for one-trick ponies that probably haven’t been near a white tablecloth. But Franklin’s go-to move—smoking 35,000 pounds of Texas brisket per month—makes people go insane (and get a bit testy in those four hour lines; just ask Obama).
Franklin’s craft and celebrity have helped drive what appears to be a barbecue boom in America. Statistics about barbecue restaurants and the industry aren’t easy to come by, so we’re left to rely on some absurd and obscure tidbits. According to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, shipments of hardwood lump charcoal increased by 10 tons between 2012 and 2013. Grill sales over the same period have gone down, which I read counter-intuitively to mean that there are just more great barbecue restaurants to eat at now. Texas has recently reported a brisket shortage, leading to steep price increases. In what may or may not be related news, fast food chains like Arby’s, which now buys as much as 300,000 pounds of brisket a week, have jumped on the smoked-meats bandwagon.
Barbecue has found its way onto reality television shows like Barbecue Pitmasters and Shark Tank; the national barbecue competition circuit boasts hundreds of events and millions of dollars in purses; and against all laws of the universe, New York has even emerged as a new barbecue destination—leading to questions about whether it should be considered a capital alongside cities like Austin, Kansas City, and Memphis.
The short answer to that question, according to a panel of smoked-meat experts we spoke to, may be “no,” but they’re not ruling out its longterm potential either. To be fair to NYC, members of the panel also questioned whether Kansas City (my hometown) and Memphis have lost a step. The barbecue-obsessed also writers weighed in on how the tradition is evolving, tipped us off to some amazing under-the-radar BBQ joints, and let us know whether Aaron Franklin lives up to the hype. All that’s left to us is the dreaming and the eating, thanks to the prodigious appetites of six of the best barbecue writers in America:
John T. Edge, director of Southern Foodways Alliance, James Beard Award-winning columnist, author of The Potlikker Papers (Penguin 2017); @johntedge
Tim Carman, James Beard Award-winning reporter and columnist at The Washington Post; @timcarman
Robert Moss, contributing barbecue editor at Southern Living, author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution (the first full-length history of barbecue in the United States), and the forthcoming The Barbecue Lover’s Carolinas (Globe Pequot Press 2015); @mossr
Daniel Vaughn, Barbecue Editor at Texas Monthly, author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue; @BBQsnob
Jim Shahin, “Smoke Signals” columnist at The Washington Post; Associate Professor, Newhouse School at Syracuse University; @jimshahin
Wright Thompson, senior writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
Without further ado, we give you the State of Smoked Meats in America. We’ll be gnawing on a rib bone while you read.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.
Does NYC deserve to be talked about as a BBQ capital now?
Shahin says: I’ve made the trip from D.C. to NYC to eat barbecue all over NYC several times now, partly to answer that very question. I’ve found that I can eat very good barbecue there, sometimes as good as what you’d find in one of the recognized capitals. But the scene is more derivative than distinctive. It is still finding its identity.
Thompson says: To be a capital, I think you should be the epicenter for a style. New York’s barbecue is sort of creole, with a lowercase c, where talented pit masters are taking what they like best from all over the country. Which makes me wonder if I’m arguing against myself: maybe something new is being born.
Vaughn says: Give it time. In a decade either the interest of the population in barbecue will have faded away, or people (besides myself and other die-hard barbecue hounds) will be traveling to Brooklyn just to eat the barbecue like they do in Memphis, Kansas City, Austin, or Lockhart.
Edge says: NYC is a great place to eat barbecue now. I think of the city in the way I think about the role Paris plays in France. Paris is a place where the provincial food of France is put on display, and New York is now a place to stage an exposition of regional American barbecue traditions. I visited Tyson Ho at Arrogant Swine in Bushwick and, as I was eating chicken wings that he created in homage to the Asian pitmasters who work Stamey’s in Greensboro, NC, he said to me something like, I chose to cook the oldest, the most primal and primitive of American foods. I’m an American. I’m not a Chinese-American. This is one of the ways I express my American-ness. In what Tyson does and in what he says, there’s a big ol’ metaphor for the American experience.
Does Aaron Franklin, whose new book was just released, deserve the hype?
Photo: Wyatt McSpadden/Franklin Barbecue
Carman says: He totally deserves it. Franklin has an annoying habit of not crediting those pitmasters who came before him, but aside from that, he’s done a lot to invigorate the scene. He’s more analytical than intuitive. He’s taking much of the mumbo-jumbo “mystery” out of smoking meats, which is good for everyone. I still don’t think I’ll be welding together my own smoker any time soon.
Edge says: Long before he had a line blocks long, he was toiling in the pits, cooking for the love of the craft. The attention he is bringing to pitmasters and his advocacy on behalf of barbecue are admirable. As a finalist for a Beard Award this year, he stands to inspire a new generation of pitmasters. Franklin detractors—the sort of folks who say he’s gotten too big for his britches—are just showing themselves to be the jealous kind.
Shahin says: Yes. Having eaten his food several times, I can say that his brisket is that good. Beyond that, his techniques and approach have actually helped to change the way others make barbecue in Texas and have spearheaded a craft-barbecue movement that has resulted in something of a golden age. Every now and then, someone comes along who changes the way we look at something. Aaron Franklin is one of those guys.
Thompson says: I don’t know. I’ve never been able to wait out the line for his food. I do think barbecue is working-class food and when it becomes something that isn’t cheap, filling, fast, and delicious, something is broken.
Vaughn says: He runs one of the most popular restaurants in the country of any type. In an unprecedented move, the Beard Foundation has made a pitmaster a finalist for its “Best Chef: Southwest” award. His cookbook is the new baseline for barbecue cookbooks after several years of the same tired formula, and it’ll likely be on the bestseller list. When are we going to stop calling it hype?
Is American barbecue undergoing a transformation, what with all the hype and new influences, ethnic or otherwise?
Thompson says: Anyone who says what barbecue is and isn’t should not let their foolish consistency intrude on other people’s food ways. Except competition barbecue. That sucks.
Carman says: The term “barbecue” is flexible. It can be a big tent encompassing all cultures that use smoke and fire to cook meats. It can also be a small, tightly controlled world where only those who cook on closed smoker systems are invited to join.
Edge says: I think too many people are caught up in nomenclature. What I yearn for in barbecue is the pervasive flavor of smoked meat, cut with a bit of vinegar. Whether that comes from a gentleman of Korean ancestry or a woman of Mexican ancestry doesn’t matter a whit to me.
Moss says: What we think of as barbecue today would have been unrecognizable to eaters a century ago. We don’t need to redefine barbecue in America; it’s already busy redefining itself, and the new flavors of immigrant communities are an important part of that evolution.
What traditional BBQ capital or famous BBQ joint do you think is in danger of falling out of the pantheon?
Carman says: I don’t think Memphis is in danger of losing its barbecue capital status, but I found more mediocre than good barbecue in the city when I visited last year. Holding ribs seems to be a particular problem for some joints.
Moss says: I worry about Kansas City. I think it’s a wonderful barbecue town, but people don’t seem to talk about it nearly as much these days as they used to.
Shahin says: Gas has made many inroads into North Carolina barbecue and the authentic wood-only barbecue there is in some jeopardy. But the state still enjoys a clear identity that comes immediately to mind, and enough places serve good versions that if the worst were to happen and every joint in North Carolina went to gas, it would be less like falling out of the pantheon and more like the lost city of Atlantis.
Edge says: I reject the whole simplistic idea of a pantheon of cities or styles. Barbecue is best understood by taking a measure of the pitmasters who step toward the fire every day. Those are the standard bearers. It’s lovely to see the stories of the old-guard barbecue masters carried forward by a new generation of pitmaster employing what amounts to a hip hop approach to sampling styles and techniques. Barbecue is then, barbecue is now, barbecue is tomorrow.
What pitmaster or city isn’t getting enough credit right now for the energy of its BBQ scene?
Carman says: Call me a homer, but I think Rob Sonderman at DCity Smokehouse in Washington, D.C., is doing more interesting things than just about anyone. He’s not afraid to experiment, to use his smokers to create big, messy, inventive sandwiches. Just wait till he moves into his new place later this year. He’ll be on the national radar in no time.
Edge says: Ricky Scott—not Rodney, mind you—of Scott Family Farm and Barbecue in Kingstree, SC is cooking barbecue as honestly and single-mindedly and single-handedly as anyone in the country. The media and pilgrim-eaters have rightly discovered Rodney, and people have been burning up the highway to Hemingway to visit Scott’s BBQ. Meanwhile, Ricky Scott, just 30 or 40 miles down the road, has been keeping his head down, hewing to the same traditions, showing the same integrity. The of barbecue craft is vibrant. There are great discoveries still to be made.
Moss says: One up-and-comer to keep an eye on is Charleston, SC, where I live. Charleston doesn’t really have a long historical barbecue tradition, though for over half a century now various members of the Bessinger and Dukes families have been serving the yellow mustard sauce and hash and rice style made famous in the Midlands of South Carolina. More recently, we’ve seen newer entrants like Home Team BBQ, Smokey Oak Taproom, Swig & Swine, and Cumberland St. Smokehouse bringing in a fusion of styles from all over, and now John Lewis of La Barbecue in Austin, TX is opening a Charleston outpost that will serve genuine Texas-style brisket and beef ribs.
Shahin says: London.
Thompson says: Craig’s. De Valls Bluff, AR. Man, I dream about that sauce.
Vaughn says: Stanley’s Famous Pit Barbecue in Tyler, TX. Nick Pencis owns the place, but pitmasters Jonathan Shaw and Jordan Jackson are doing some of the best barbecue in the state with one of the biggest barbecue menus. They’re also open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a full bar and live music. There isn’t another barbecue joint like it in Texas.
The apocalypse is scheduled for next week and you have one BBQ joint to visit before we all become smoked meat. Which joint is it?
Vaughn says: If the apocalypse is scheduled and I have a full week, then you’re fucking looney if you think I’m eating at one barbecue joint. But unless someone sends me to Spain to finally try Asador Etxebarri, they’ll all be in Texas.
Carman: Kreuz Market, because then I could sneak off and hit Smitty’s and Black’s before I turned to ash myself.
Edge says: I grew up a little less than a mile from Old Clinton Barbecue, near Gray, GA. It was one of many places in Georgia that modeled itself on Fresh Air Barbecue in Flovilla, arguably the oldest traditional barbecue joint in the state. I can still see Mrs. Coulter, the Old Clinton proprietor, standing in sawdust, working a cleaver, hacking a pork butt into nubs for a sandwich, which she served with ketchup-y, vinegar-y sauce and a cup of Brunswick stew. That’s what I crave, the barbecue of my youth.
Moss says: If it’s not till next week, that’s plenty of time to work in a couple dozen joints or so. Why pick just one?
Shahin says: I’m going to cop out here because I have too many reasons to eat at one place and too few to eat at others, and they don’t all line up, and if that doesn’t make sense, then you still have a ways to go in your barbecue life.
Thompson says: My nostalgic heart is pointing me toward Abe’s BBQ in Clarksdale, MS, my hometown, where my last meal would be potato chips doused in sauce and a Big Abe Chili cheeseburger.