Food writer, Foodways Texas Board member, and barbecue pilgrim Robb Walsh is the author of The Tex-Mex Cookbook, Legends of Texas BBQ and Barbecue Crossroads. (@robbwalsh)
What most people want to know about barbecue is who has the tastiest ribs and the tangiest sauce. But top 10 lists, ratings, and our firm belief that we are masters of the barbecue universe distract us from a much more important matter: There is a dark side to the business that only the pitmasters and their families and friends ever talk about.
A few years ago, I teamed up with photographer O. Rufus Lovett to take a road trip and write a book about Southern barbecue. We traced the lineage of American barbecue backwards through time from East Texas to the Arkansas Delta and Memphis, across the Piedmont region of Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina, and down the coastal plains of the Carolinas to the shores of the Atlantic where it all started.
We didn’t go searching for the best barbecue—we went looking for the wellsprings of ‘cue mythology and the true stories of its people. The resultant book, Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey, describes heart-warming tableaus as well as some gut-wrenching tragedies.
Our smoke-filled journey drew the curtain back on a number of pressing issues. Everybody with a television knows that barbecue cook-offs have been ruined by reality TV. But we also found that barbecue joints had been harassed by bureaucrats in the name of progress, and to advance the interests of fast-food chains. We saw barbecue being romanticized by the national press into something it isn’t—while the spiritual, racial, and cultural baggage that comes along with barbecue history was being ignored.
And most importantly to all of us—even the belt-notching barbecue tourists who are only really interested in Instagramming their food—the barbecue business is being held hostage by the cynical tycoons of the American meat industry. The meat we are eating is being manipulated to increase corporate profits at the expense of culinary excellence.
And that’s only the beginning. Here are seven taboo topics of the barbecue world that everyone needs to start talking about.
1. You are eating enhanced meat.
Barbecue pitmasters like to brine meat for extra flavor, but the new “enhanced meats” that have taken over the industry can’t absorb any more water (or flavor). In the meat industry, enhanced is a euphemism for meat products injected with phosphates, potassium, antioxidants, and water or flavoring. The chemicals help the meat retain water and stay moist while cooking; but the real “enhancement” is that the 15% added water weight adds 15% higher profits to the meat packer’s bottom line. American consumers pay something like $70 billion a year for chicken, so guess how many billion we spent on water? And there is no way to tell you are getting enhanced meat from reading the label—it is simply the norm these days. True, the injections do make the cooked meat taste juicier—as long as you don’t mind ingesting a lot of chemicals. But you might want to check out recent consumer alerts on the dangers of increased potassium and phosphorus in enhanced meats. To get around this rip-off, barbecue joints, cook-off competitors, and home barbecuers are forced to pay extra for “natural” brands that contain no additives, or shop at wholesale clubs that sell un-enhanced meats. (Photo: Dream in Demon)
2. Briskets are shrinking.
The price of brisket is going up and the quality of the cut is going down. The packer’s cut is getting longer and skinnier, forcing barbecue pitmasters to trim away more unusable meat. So how did the shape of the brisket change? The meat industry varies the specifications on meat cuts to make the most money. Nobody complained when the baby back ribs started getting fatter. The back ribs were selling for more than pork loin, so meat cutters started leaving more loin on the chops to take advantage of the higher price. But when the price of beef pectoral got higher than brisket (fast-food restaurants are using it for fajitas), the meat cutters started leaving less of that delta-shaped muscle on the side of the brisket. To make up for the lost weight, they cut lower into the navel—the cut used to make pastrami. The navel meat is too thin to barbecue, so pitmasters grind the “too skinny” stuff for sausage—which is driving the prices up on brisket and sausage. (Gif by Liz Barclay)
3. For what we are paying for BBQ brisket, we could be eating BBQ prime rib.
Barbecue is a labor-intensive cooking method developed by people with limited means to turn inexpensive cuts of meat into succulent meals. Beef brisket was once considered ideal for barbecue in Texas because the melting fat cap cut down on the effort of basting, and because the forequarter cut was so cheap. But not anymore. The new school of Texas barbecue—and its imitators across the country—are paying top dollar for USDA Prime or Certified Angus brisket and selling it to the public at ever-higher prices. At Franklin’s Barbecue in Austin, Killen’s Barbeque in Pearland, and high-end joints across Texas, barbecued brisket is currently selling for $20 a pound. Meanwhile, the current price of barbecued Prime Rib at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, TX is $18.90 a pound. What’s wrong with this picture? (Photo: Market Oracle)
4. BBQ Competitions are the new WWF fights.
“I am Myron Mixon from Unadilla, Georgia, and I am the baddest barbecueing bastard there has ever been,” begins the best-selling barbecue cookbook, Smokin’, by the reality-television star and BBQ Cook-off King. To people who feel that injecting meat with chemicals and flavoring solutions isn’t “authentic” barbecue, Mixon explains that this is the latest stage in the evolution of barbecue cookery. And he makes fun of barbecue competitors who get together “in their little circles with their little cocktails.” With his all-black wardrobe, foul mouth, and cigars, Mixon has become the barbecue cook-off version of a World Wrestling Federation villain. “What I do best is beat everybody else’s ass,” he crows. I don’t begrudge Mixon his millions or his mansion with the extra rooms to hold all his barbecue trophies. But is seems sad to me that the most famous barbecue man in America is trying to make a virtue out of beating up the other kids and taking their lunch money. (Photo: O. Rufus Lovett for Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey)
5. NYC’s Texas barbecue is like Houston’s New York pizza—big fucking whoop.
When Grimaldi’s and other pizza chains introduced coal-oven pizza to Houston a few years ago, I wanted to love it. But unfortunately, a modern wood-burning brick oven fueled by anthracite instead of hardwood is not the same as on old-fashioned coal oven. And when the Houston pizzaiolos put a nice char on the crust, they way they do at Grimaldi’s in DUMBO, Texans would send their pizzas back complaining that they were burnt. Sadly, Texans tend to judge their pizzas by the abundance of toppings rather than the crispness of the crusts.
Neither have I been impressed with the Texas barbecue I’ve had in NYC. The stainless-steel contraptions they use to cook meat are nothing like the old-fashioned wood-burning pits in Central Texas. And New Yorkers don’t understand and can’t be bothered with authentic traditions like serving the sliced meat on a piece of butcher paper with no utensils. New Yorkers want potato salad, cole slaw, and dessert with their meal. And, sadly, they judge barbecue by the sauce. The pizza tastes better in New York and the barbecue tastes better in Texas because the food is not the same without the culture. (Photo: Facebook/Mighty Quinn’s)
6. National press is infatuated with white, male hipster BBQ.
The national press would have you believe barbecue is dominated by white hipster males—but believe it or not, blacks, Latinos, and women are involved in the barbecue biz too. Check out Liz’s Homestyle Bar-B-Que in Gadsden, AL, where three generations of black women carry on the barbecue tradition started by the late Lizzy Leach. Go say hello to Flora Payne at Payne’s Bar-B-Que in Memphis, and Tootsie Tomanetz, the pitmaster at Snow’s in Lexington, TX. Newly famous barbecue joints like Pecan Lodge in Dallas, Corkscrew in the Woodlands, and Roegel’s in Houston are actually mom-and-pop joints. But it’s hard to tell because pop the pitmaster gets more press than mom who makes the side dishes and runs the business. When we finally start hearing about women in barbecue, I’m willing to bet it will be in the form of a Smokin’ Barbecue Babes calendar. (Photo: O. Rufus Lovett for Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey)
7. There’s a national barbecue revival going on, but community barbecues are dying out for lack of volunteers.
While there is a new interest in barbecue across the country, the oldest barbecue tradition in America—the community barbecue—is largely unnoticed by the general public. Community barbecue isn’t about competition; it’s about bringing people together. It flies under the radar in churches, clubs, and lodge halls all over the country. The pits are ancient and the food is often spectacular, but these affairs have to be held as private parties to remain out of the jurisdiction of health department bureaucrats. Young Americans don’t join social groups anymore, so annual community barbecues that have been going on for decades are starting to die out for lack of young volunteers. And that’s a shame. If you love barbecue and you want to reconnect with its roots, you might consider lending your talents to a community barbecue—or starting one of your own. It’s an American tradition worth saving. (Photo: O. Rufus Lovett for Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey)