I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Arthur Bryant’s original barbecue sauce.
His Kansas City smokehouse, which was made famous decades ago in a Calvin Trillin essay, served a sauce that’s been described as a mixture of Comet and ketchup. That description isn’t far off. The sauce’s gritty texture negates whatever pleasant flavors its ketchup-like ingredients might offer. By the standards of traditional sweet barbecue sauces, it’s a bitter abomination. But when it comes to personal aesthetic statements, Bryant’s sauce is without peer. It represents a throwing down of the gauntlet; a simple, unwavering declaration: “This is the sauce we serve. Take it or leave it.”
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama, takes a similar approach. Its mayonnaise-based white barbecue sauce is a shocking sight when slathered on smoked chicken. But it’s their sauce, and they stick with it.
In our barbecue epoch, the personal and the unwavering are sorely missing.
Barbecue has rapidly spread from the great Southern smokehouses of its birth all the way to such once-primitive backwaters as New York and Washington. Even in Midwestern and West Coast cities where barbecue was introduced during the great black migrations of the 20th century, there is a resurgence of interest.
In this way, barbecue is following the path of another Southern art form: the blues, which spread from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis and Chicago and ultimately found its way to England. Along the way, the sound was transformed from the acoustic version played by Son House and Robert Johnson into the electrified, rocked-out music of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
Barbecue’s migration to the national stage is almost complete. This summer, in Parade magazine, John T. Edge declared this the “new golden age of barbecue,” saying, “Americans adopted barbecue as our national folk food.”
That is exactly what barbecue didn’t need.
So much of its mystique has hinged on its value as a taste of place; a gustatory signature that told the tongue whether it was eating food from the Southeast, Southwest or Deep South. The old verities about the Southwest being beef country and the Southeast being pork country were never absolutely true. But the fervor and chauvinism with which the Texans argued with the Carolinians about which meat, wood and sauces were appropriate raw materials for barbecue provided a refreshing reminder that they were arguing about something personal, definitive, that mattered.
For those of us outside the barbecue belt, we can sit on the sidelines and enjoy the toothsome luxury of tasting the barbecue of various regions, even if we don’t understand or appreciate its origins. In much the same way, hipsters of the late 1960s and early ’70s could drop out to the sounds of British blues-infused rock, without necessarily being tuned in to the music of the Mississippi originals.
Whether they are found in San Francisco, New Orleans or Atlanta, contemporary barbecue restaurants are apt to offer a full range of sauces and meats. The South Carolina mustard sauce, the North Carolina vinegar sauce and the Kansas City tomato sauce sit side by side on their tables. These new places are disjointed, much as the Holy Land Experience theme park is conveniently close to Walt Disney World in Orlando and the pyramid at the Luxor in Las Vegas is only a few minutes away from the canals of “Venice.”
New restaurants have also introduced something that barbecue menus haven’t seen in years: side dishes containing fresh vegetables. Even the best traditional barbecue restaurants seldom served sides that could stand alone without smoked meats to buttress them.
For the new big city barbecue joints, this approach makes sense. A restaurant doesn’t want to be disqualified because it doesn’t offer something for the person who doesn’t eat meat or the one who doesn’t consider macaroni and cheese to be a vegetable. Even Arthur Bryant’s now serves two more conventional sauces in addition to the original, a Rich & Spicy Barbeque Sauce and a Sweet Heat Barbeque Sauce.
But now that restaurants offer smoked meats and quality vegetables nationwide, what we really need is a new “golden age of barbecue.” An era in which these new capitals of ’que distinguish themselves by developing regional and subregional approaches. This will be no easy task. Wars, railroads, national commercials and worldwide food conglomerates have herded us away from our regional differences and closer to national conformity. We know what barbecue sauce is supposed to taste like because Kraft Foods Group Inc. and Clorox Co. (yes, that Clorox!) have subtly won us over to their products.
To extend the blues analogy a bit further, the original barbecue style (whole hogs cooked in a pit) most closely resembles the acoustic blues of the Delta pioneers. The seasoned, smoked and slathered pork shoulders and ribs of Memphis and Chicago parallel the electrified sounds of the Beale Street Blues Boy, B.B. King, and his Chicago counterpart McKinley Morganfield, also known as Muddy Waters.
The new barbecue joints in places such as Seattle and Denver are reminiscent of the British invasion of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and other rock musicians who started off covering the rhythms and styles of the blues masters. It wasn’t long before those musicians could no longer be characterized simply as blues-rock. They developed their own signature sounds. New barbecue restaurants are developing their own styles, and some, like Blue Smoke and Hill Country in New York and Smoke Restaurant in Dallas, are showing signs of greatness.
Overall, we are still at the cover-band stage, I’m afraid. The barbecue nation has a ways to go before it can reach the peaks achieved by Bryant in 1908 and Gibson in 1925. In the meantime, there’s still plenty of great barbecue in unlikely places.
(Lolis Eric Elie is a writer for the AMC show “Hell on Wheels” and the author of “Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country” and the recently released “Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans.”)
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