Food & Drink

The State of Modern Barbecue

John T. Edge takes the temperature of twenty-first-century ’cue

Photo: Stephen DeVries

Turkey, brisket, ribs, and sausages, plus butter beans, mac and cheese, and Tater Tot casserole from Alabama's Bow & Arrow.

MEMPHIS-STYLE BEEF RIBS! I recently saw that banner flap in the breeze outside the third location of One & Only BBQ, a new Memphis-based minichain. Later that day, I stopped for a chopped pork sandwich with slaw at Tops Bar-B-Q, a fifteen-unit Memphis institution founded in 1952. Tacked near the register, a blurry photograph promoted barbecue wraps. Made with flour tortillas, they looked like burritos that got lost in transit from Texas.

In Memphis, where dry-rub pork spareribs and pork shoulder sandwiches became twentieth-century coins of the barbecue realm, and where pork obsessives still convene each May to crown world champions of whole hogs, pork shoulders, and pork ribs, barbecue is in flux. Across the city, across the South, across the nation, new definitions, new dishes, and new personalities have emerged. For lovers of barbecue, this is a time of great change and great promise. It’s also a time of questions: Do we now witness the beginning of the end? Or the dawn of a golden age?

Not long ago, it was common to categorize our crazy quilt of barbecue styles and substyles into four regions: Carolinas, Memphis, Kansas City, and Texas. America is now unlearning that too-simple narrative.

Dishes once cooked and served in a couple of counties in one state now span the region. White-sauce-slathered chicken is no longer peculiar to northern Alabama. Post-oak-smoked brisket, served in the Hill Country Texas style with onions and pickles, is no longer anathema in Middle Georgia, where I was raised on hacked pork sandwiches and Brunswick stew. In cities such as Birmingham, where a pork sandwich on a bun was, until a decade back, the default order, the locally based chain Jim ’N Nick’s now serves barbecue salads, barbecue potatoes, and barbecue quesadillas.

Cities that have not been traditional centers of barbecue excellence now host vital interpreters of classic styles and makers of new styles. Behold the Texas hot gut sausages at Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina. Taste the psychedelic pulled pork sandwich with whiskey sour pickles and spicy ranch dressing at Hometown Bar-B-Que in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Photo: Winnie Au

Hometown Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn.

Even as definitions have splintered and geographies have collided, our command of a common history and culture has solidified. “Barbecue is the English version of a Spanish word describing an Indian cooking technique that took root in the South,” Jim Auchmutey writes in his new book, Smokelore, “where it was prized by planters and usually prepared by African Americans and eventually spread throughout the United States.”

It took a long time to get to this point, when a smart writer can summarize this complex food in that simple way. Over the last decade, researchers have busted apart the old stories to focus attention on the often-thankless labor of pit masters. In 2002, Robb Walsh set the tone with his Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook. Today, Daniel Vaughn, author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat, works a national beat from a base in Dallas, thinking through how contemporary pit masters honor and subvert tradition. Adrian Miller, the author of Soul Food, is now researching and writing Black Smoke, a book that aims to be the defining chronicle of African American barbecue excellence.

Barbecue as we now know it was built on the knowledge and vision of working-class pit masters. Regional styles most likely began to develop when individual pit masters developed singular recipes that spread. Big Bob Gibson introduced that white-sauce smoked chicken to 1920s Decatur, Alabama. Charlie Vergos pioneered dry-rub ribs in the 1950s at the Rendezvous in Memphis. Over time, those styles crossed county and state lines.

The future is now at hand, and, as before, it’s in the hands of pit masters, says Todd Richards. A black chef who rose to fame in white-tablecloth restaurants, he is now working to open a barbecue restaurant in the former Anderson’s Old Fashioned Bar-B-Que in the Florida Heights neighborhood of Atlanta. That future, Richards says, will be “less about regional styles and more about the vision and talent of pit masters, who build fan bases and develop their own personal styles.” What is old is once again new.

In 2015, the James Beard Foundation awarded Aaron Franklin the Best Chef: Southwest medal for Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas. Three years later, Rodney Scott of Charleston, South Carolina, picked up Beard’s Best Chef: Southeast medal. Now, as we honor the role of pit masters and pay down debts of pleasure owed, barbecue devotees also recognize that new people are stepping into the pits. At Stamey’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, founded in 1930, Brin K and Chhanuon Ponn, a Vietnamese Montagnard and a Cambodian refugee, ferry coals with long-handled shovels and turn shoulders with pitchforks. At Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin, Miguel Vidal mixes and matches his Mexican American upbringing in San Antonio and the standards of Central Texas to get breakfast tacos stuffed with smoked brisket and topped with fried eggs and refried beans.

Photo: Margaret Houston

Rodney Scott at his Charleston restaurant

In the years to come, ingredients will matter more. Scott, who has expanded beyond his native South Carolina to open a restaurant halfway across the South in Birmingham, once described the first step in his traditional cooking process as harvesting his own trees, as a farmer harvests a crop of tomatoes. Throughout the region, women and men who once claimed that the sole keys to excellence were their knowledge and talent now recognize that better pigs and cows make better barbecue.

Chain barbecue is also part of the future. Dreamland, the beloved rib joint out of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, has morphed into a chain. So has Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, which began near Nashville and has spread to ten whole-hog-smoking locations. Jim ’N Nick’s has expanded from Birmingham to build thirty-plus locations as far away as Denver. Scott is now planning his next location in Atlanta.

Rather than being a recent intrusion, chain barbecue has deep roots in the region. The Pig Stand chain began in 1921 on a highway between Dallas and Fort Worth. By the 1930s, more than a hundred locations operated from Florida to California. Chains once used a fast-food model of better-cheaper-faster to expand. Now they build their businesses around old traditions, updated to take advantage of new techniques and new technologies, to make honest contemporary barbecue that tastes like time travel must feel.

The growth of modern chains, interpreting a mash-up of styles and techniques, has not vanquished the old guard. Travel the South and you can still sample grease-bomb-style beef sausages in Beaumont, Texas, pork shoulder steaks in South Central Kentucky, and occasional public goat barbecues in northeastern Mississippi. All this new attention to barbecue often shines bright lights on old-school brilliance. Helen’s Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, Tennessee, still stacks a perfect chopped pork sandwich. But Helen Turner’s audience is no longer restricted to western Tennessee. Pilgrims now trek from New York and Canada and beyond.

Photo: Peden + Munk

The pork sandwich at Helen’s Bar-B-Q in Brownsville.

Old attitudes about barbecue now fade. Pit masters have begun to shed brogans and overalls. Authenticity no longer requires that women and men work tar-paper shacks sheltered by rusted tin roofs. That want for a certain sort of authenticity obscured the work of operators who struggled to feed their families and pay their employees. A new generation now does right by the old ways, while using point-of-sale programs and inventory management systems—and steering clear of the taxman and (hopefully) the fireman.

For a television appearance on behalf of the National Pork Board in 2002, I received a day of media training in which I learned to say, while smiling broadly, that all great barbecue begins with pork and reaches its apogee when cooked low and slow. Standing on a bluff above the Mississippi River, with cameras trained on me, I spoke those words as the annual Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest began. If memory serves, I also made some reference to Southern excellence and Yankee failings. 

I didn’t recognize then that I was simplifying a complex story. Maybe even fabricating a history that could not hold up. But I do now. Not all barbecue is cooked low and slow, no matter what we’ve been coached to believe. (Witness those Kentucky pork steaks cooked directly over hot coals.) As styles have spread, it no longer works for a Deep South native like me to characterize beef as sacrilege and pork as sacrament. (Hello, One & Only.) And while the South birthed barbecue, just as this place birthed jazz and bluegrass and overnight package delivery, along the way barbecue became a defining American food.

Good barbecue is now more widely available than ever. Did the South lose something when the pride of our region went national? That question begs a knee-jerk affirmative among zero-sum traditionalists. But not from me. Now is the time to knit together a new story that depends less on old stereotypes and antiquated business models.

This is indeed a golden era, in which old and new definitions of barbecue complement. One doesn’t cancel out the other. Old ideas and new styles are now in conversation. Barbecue was once a Southern food with a national fan base. Now it’s a national food with Southern roots. Now barbecue has a future as well as a past. And that future, glimpsed through the strata of smoke that hang heavy in the air over hundreds of pits both old and new, looks bright.   

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