Men drink beers on the patio, one eye on the ball game. They delve into mega-packs of processed meat, chucking burgers and sausages on a gas-powered grill. Wives prepare salads, kids run around. It starts to rain. This is what most of us picture when we think of a barbecue: a polite suburban event with defined gender roles.
It would be easy to forget that real barbecue is one of the world’s greatest cuisines, as well as its oldest. Early man discovered that meat, when cooked near a smoking fire rather than directly over it, would undergo a miraculous alchemy. Everyone, everywhere, has barbecued, whether with pits, spits or racks. The Arab Bedouin use sand ovens; the Japanese, porcelain containers. But nowhere does the barbecue flame burn brighter than in the southern states of America.
In southern barbecue, tough cuts of meat (ribs or brisket) are slow-cooked in a pit or, more commonly, in a brick or metal “smoker”, transforming them into delectable morsels of tender flesh and rendered fat. Hickory woodchips, chosen for their hardness, provide the smoke and impart flavour to the meat. It’s a long, messy and sometimes dangerous business: some of the best barbecue joints pride themselves on the number of times their smokehouses have burnt to the ground over the years.
Like all the best American traditions, southern barbecue is a melting pot of influences. Techniques for barbecuing pork, mutton and goat arrived in the Deep South from west Africa, while beef barbecue (asada) came from South America via Mexico. The Taino, an indigenous Caribbean people, impressed the Spanish conquistadors by cooking fish high above the fire on a wooden rack called a barbecoa – hence the modern word.
Regional variations abound. Just as the Delta blues found a new voice in Chicago, barbecue assumed distinct local flavours as African-Americans moved around the country in search of work. Go to Kansas City for beef brisket or pork ribs with tomato and molasses-based sauce and Owensboro, Kentucky, for mutton and a vinegar-based sauce. The Carolinas – jokingly referred to as “the Balkans of barbecue” – are a baffling patchwork of competing pork-barbecue traditions. Don’t dream of ordering mustard-based sauce in North Carolina.
But everywhere you go in the South, the governing principle is the same: “low and slow”, a gentle, indirect heat sustained over a long time. Rodney Scott, pitmaster at Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway, South Carolina, roasts whole sides of hog for 12 hours, mopping them occasionally with vinegar-pepper baste before turning them over and puckering the skin. Ed Mitchell, a North Carolina pitmaster, is renowned for his hot and fast technique – but this sort of maverick approach should be left to the experts. Generally, barbecue is not to be rushed.
It is a welcome respite from a world that prizes speed and efficiency, forcing us to slow down and spend time together, as our ancestors once did around the campfire. But modernity has done its best to stamp out real barbecue. When American families moved to the suburbs after the second world war, they wanted to recreate barbecue culture without messing up their manicured lawns. Enter the Weber barbecue, created in 1952 by an employee at the Weber Metal Works from two halves of a steel buoy, apparently. The Weber ran on charcoal, not wood, and was essentially a grill. Thus began the long, sad slide towards shop-bought bottled sauces and gas-powered grills – which, by dispensing with smoke altogether, represented the debasement of barbecue.
Over the decades, various people have tried to keep the flame alive. One of barbecue’s most outspoken champions was Bobby Seale, founder of the Black Panthers, who dreamt up a cookbook of his favourite barbecue (or barbeque, as he preferred to spell it) recipes while in prison. “Barbequ’en with Bobby” (1988) was a defiant counter-blast to the creeping commercialisation of barbecue. It opens with a “Declaration of the Barbeque Bill of Rights”, demanding respect for “all the billions of human taste buds and savory barbeque desires”. He felt that supermarket sauces were a lazy and dangerous shortcut to proper marinades, leading to meat that was burnt on the outside and undercooked on the inside.
A recent news story from Australia, home to some of barbecue’s most devoted practitioners, gives cause for hope. Cilla Carden, a vegan from Perth, took her neighbours to Australia’s Supreme Court for “deliberately” letting the smell of their barbecue waft into her garden. The case, which was thrown out for lack of evidence, inspired a passionate backlash. Last week 24,000 people responded to an invitation on Facebook to attend a “community barbecue” outside Carden’s home. “Let us enjoy this feast, bring your smoker and your barbecue,” someone wrote. “Don’t let Cilla destroy a good old Aussie tradition.” It was cancelled after the police got involved, but the story stands as a warning to anyone trying to extinguish real barbecue. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.