While largely rooted in the South, barbecue spread across America along with the automobile in the middle of the 20th century, until the advent of fast-food chains supplanted roadside barbecue joints in popularity. Since the early aughts, though, barbecue has experienced a major rebirth. Barbecue restaurants and festivals thrive in urban outposts, Texas A&M University hosts a barbecue summer camp that sells out in minutes, and Aaron Franklin continues to draw massive crowds of foodies (and Presidents) at his Austin restaurant. Hell, even across the pond they’re embracing the greatness of the low-and-slow mantra.
Despite this near universal affection for smoky meat, people are awfully opinionated about what actually represents True Barbecue™. To sauce or not to sauce? Can you use gas? Who invented it? Where does the word actually come from?
These debates burn on because the rich American tradition of barbecue is so broad. From the Carolinas to Kansas City to Memphis to Texas, you’ll find disparate meats and styles that make it hard to neatly categorize barbecue. That doesn’t mean people don’t try. Each of those locations claim not just to have the best barbecue, but also have the right barbecue. But really, barbecue isn’t defined by whether you’re eating pork or beef, or whether your meat comes with or without sauce. Barbecue is a method, where fire cooks meat low and slow over indirect while imparting a smoky flavor. Even so, there are still prevailing notions about its history (it’s a French word, right?), culture (do competitions tell us who the best pitmasters are?) and preparation (are you actually barbecuing on that Weber gas grill?) that are myths worthy of puncturing.
We assembled a panel of experts to sort fact from fiction in the world of barbecue:
- John Shelton Reed is co-founder of the Campaign for Real Barbecue, where he advocates for preservation of wood-fired barbecue methods.
- Elizabeth Karmel, chef and owner of Carolina Cue To Go, which ships whole hog barbecue by the pound around the country.
- Michael Twitty is a culinary historian who studies the food of African Americans and the African diaspora. His latest book is The Cooking Gene.
- Robert Moss is a food historian and author of the book Barbecue: The History of an American Institution.
Even among these august experts, they disagreed about barbecue. But many of them agreed that there are some myths embraced by the general public that need to be corrected.