The Future of Barbecue

The good folks at the Abbeville Institute have a great piece (originally published at The American Conservative) about the most beloved and controversial of Southern foodstuffs:  barbecue.

Barbecue, as author John Shelton Reed points out, is highly localized.  For me—and any true South Carolinian—the One True ‘Cue is mustard-based pulled pork barbecue from South Carolina.  It’s definitely not beef brisket or anything with ketchup.  It should come from a place that’s only open three or four days a week, and is served with hash and rice.

Unfortunately, much like the “old, weird America” whose passing John Derbyshire regularly mourns, traditional barbecue—regardless of the regional variety—is being shoved out by “mass barbecue,” the kind served up in chains that look like the inside of Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag.

Reed writes that there essentially three types of barbecue:  folk, haute, and mass.  Folk barbecue is what I described above:  it’s the barbecue that is specific to a place or region, and the recipe isn’t the result of any individual’s contributions, but merely is the style or taste of the region.  Indeed, its very status is dependent upon it being a product of its very culture and place.  That’s probably why Southerners love barbecue so much—it’s like eating our very conception of the cosmos.

Folk barbecue joints are the little mom and pop places that usually have the owner’s name—and the owner is likely in the kitchen.  He was also sitting throughout the night at a pit roasting a pig, feeding it with handcut wooden logs.  His wife might make the sides.  The food is good, cheap, and plentiful—the point is to get full.

Haute barbecue is, generally, the result of the loving efforts of professional chefs who want to take those regional flavors and make them as perfect as possible—to realize the Platonic ideal of a region’s barbecue.  Reed likens this style to classical and Romantic music, which pulled heavily from folk music, then raised it to transcendent heights.

The imprint of the individual chef is clear on this style of barbecue.  Just as the folk dances of medieval Europe became, say, the recognizable minuets of Mozart, the folk barbecue of a region becomes something new when filtered through the genius of a master chef.  Fusion—such as Korean barbecue—is also a part of haute barbecue.

Those first two types both have their place within the barbecue world—one the world of  deep, time-worn tradition, the other the application of genius and loving homage.  But mass barbecue is a messy melange, a crass cash-grab of the lowest common denominator.

Rather than faithfully reproducing the cuisine of a region, perfecting it, or adding inventive ornamentation, mass barbecue throws everything together.  This trend is natural in a cash-obsessed market economy, but it seems to come out of Kansas City.  To quote Reed:

This “polyamorous” style (as Hanna Raskin calls it) is actually native to Kansas City, a Johnny-come-lately in the barbecue world that seems to be taking over. It is no accident that this is the sort of barbecue cooked in competitions and most often seen on television: the Kansas City Barbeque Society is the major sponsor of barbecue competitions nationwide, and its rules require that competitors, wherever they may be, cook pork butt and ribs, beef brisket, and chicken. (Kansas City-style sauces are not required, but always win.)

The totalizing machinations of the Kansas City Barbeque Society have some dire consequences for folk barbecue joints.  Reed writes that haute barbecue can peacefully coexist with either of the other two styles, as it’s competing for different clientele—folks willing to pay $10 or more for a plate of barbecue.  But folk barbecue and mass barbecue compete directly for the same marketshare.

What Reed fears is that the juggernaut of mass-market barbecue will drive the folk joints out of business, in the process replacing them with bland, corporate copycats, cheap simulacra of the real thing.  It would be like Olive Garden displacing every little Italian restaurant:  yes, the food is good enough, but it’s all the same wherever you go.  There’s no regional variety or flavor.

To quote from Reed again, at length:

For one thing, if the climax stage of the barbecue landscape leaves no room for folk barbecue it will mean the end of the community barbecue tradition. Purveyors of mass barbecue may claim that they offer something for everyone, but it’s not really for everyone. Lawyers and construction workers, cops and college students, cowboys and hippies, preachers and sinners, rich and poor, black and white—all kinds of people used to gather in folk barbecue places like Stamey’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, to eat $4.00 barbecue sandwiches for lunch, but at the International House of Barbecue the prices are higher and the “ambience” is thoroughly middle-class. (The old tools and patent medicine signs on the walls probably came from a decorator.) A guy with his name stitched over his pocket would be out of place.

Moreover, the triumph of mass barbecue will mean that you can’t tell where you are by what you’re eating, and that will be a shame.

Put another way:  some things are worth preserving, regardless of the cost or inefficiency.  Mustard-based, pulled pork, Carolina Gold barbecue is definitely one of them.  I imagine North Carolians, Texans, and the rest feel the same way about their barbecue traditions.

Kansas City can chuck itself into the pit.


5 thoughts on “The Future of Barbecue

  1. There is, unfortunately, a serious problem with your formulation that dismisses/denigrates the “mass” barbeque. It assumes the superiority of folk barbeque. Now, I’m not going to fault folk barbeque, certainly not when doing so may risk trespassing upon the honor of a Southern gentleman.

    See, I, too am a Southern Gentleman, and get somewhat testy when yokels and Yankees (but I repeat myself) talk trash about the great eats for which my region is known. Only my South is Southern Nevada. And Southern Nevada, much like 60% of the country, doesn’t have “regional barbeque.” There is no “Vegas BBQ”, just like there isn’t “California BBQ” or “Northwest BBQ” or “New England BBQ”, etc, etc. While one can theoretically find most/all of the regional BBQs in Las Vegas, there isn’t enough of any individual region to really get a sense of whether it’s “authentic” or not. But there sure are a LOT of people who do NOT have any regional BBQ allegiances. And these folks, largely, are the market for “mass BBQ”

    (yes, yes, I know. Technically, given that I am as a practical matter a native of Las Vegas, some may consider ME to be a Yankee, what with the whole “Battle Born State” thing, but when discussing matters of BBQ, it is a well known fact that Yankees don’t know a damn thing, So i will lean upon the fusion of my birthplace (West Texas) and my alma mater (UNLV “GO REBELS!”) to shed the disrepute of Yankee-dom for the moment.)

    Grace and peace.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi John,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I certainly take it for granted, being from God’s Country—the South—that I have all manner of regional barbecues at my fingertips (fingertips that will get licked repeatedly after a good meal).

      In Reed’s piece, he addresses this issue—the lack of regional variations in some parts of the country. He points out that many “haute” barbecue chefs have taken regional varieties and exported them to parts of the country that lack a barbecue tradition of their own. You’re essentially arguing that “mass” barbecue is _the_ barbecue of the country outside of the Old South, which makes sense with Reed’s categorization: if your region lacks a barbecue tradition, it’ll take whatever it can get.

      I’m certainly sympathetic to the fact that many parts of the country still want to enjoy barbecue, so mass barbecue serves a role. The point of my piece—derived from Reed’s point—is that folk barbecue _does_ reflect a people and a place. It’s a part of very localized cultures that celebrate and commemorate that localism with a plate of barbecue, baked beans, corn on the cob, and rice and hash.

      A big chain barbecue joint threatens some of those folk barbecue places—such is the free market, I suppose—but that leaves us with _less_ variety, not more. That’s the eternal struggle of the Old South—holding onto our local identities and histories while imperial Yankeedom constantly seeks to homogenize everything.

      Thanks again for commenting! If you’re ever in South Carolina, I’d be happy to treat you to some mustard-based barbecue (which even itself varies from town to town). I’ll let you know if I ever make it out to Nevada. I’d love to see the Southwest someday.



      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] “The Future of Barbecue” – The inspiration for this post was a piece at the Abbeville Institute, which detailed the deleterious effect of “mass,” or mass-market, barbecue chains on mom and pop barbecue joints, as well as the tradition of community barbecue.  It’s one of the many interesting chapters in the negative consequences of unbridled economic growth and efficiency at the cost of tradition and community. […]


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