Sunday, December 04, 2011

Is Competition Barbecue a Menace?

Wright Thompson has a wonderful piece in the Oct/Nov Garden and Gun on the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and the efforts of the Fatback Collective, a motley band of award-winning Southern chefs--Donald Link, Sean Brock, John Currence--and veteran barbecue kings--Rodney Scott, Nick Pihakis, Pat Martin, Drew Robinson.  Their mission was not just to win the whole hog category but, in the process, "rescue a barbecue contest, and maybe barbecue itself, from a crushing sameness."

It's a great read and makes you really wish you could have snuck onto the team, but the central premise of the article got me thinking not about the past but about the future of barbecue.

Memphis in May, Wright writes, is "a threat to authentic barbecue", with its judges acculturated to lean pigs shot full of MSG and sugar, the cooking manipulated through their Mr. Wizard tricks like filling cavities with sticks of butter and using ice-filled pillow cases to halt cooking.

Thompson may be right when he says that these high-tech competitive teams are currently "the face of Southern barbecue."  They certainly have about as much exposure as one can imagine through cable television and full-color glossy books.  But, it just doesn't strike me as something to worry about.

The competition barbecue circuit is a closed, almost insular world, one in which teams travel from weekend festival to weekend festival, mingling and bonding and getting to know each others' families along the way.  As Wright points out, the trick to winning a barbecue competition is to understand who won the last few contests and mimic their techniques, a sort of closed-island evolutionary accelerator that has resulted in a barbecue style that can truly be found only on the grounds of a sanctioned barbecue competition.

But is this really a threat to authentic barbecue, the slow-cooked regional variations that barbecue lovers hold so dear?  I don't think so.  Sure, some of the champions publish bestselling recipe books that have certainly shaped what your average backyard barbecuer (that is to say, a backyard griller) is throwing on his gas grills or his shiny new Big Green Egg.  But, how many of those folks were ever going to dig a pit and fill it with hickory coals?

No, the real threat to barbecue is the Southern Pride gas-powered, wood-chip-smoke infusing cooker and others of its ilk for the simple reason that they make it really easy to have barbecue that, while not great, is pretty good.   A barbecue restaurateur can put on the meat, set the thermostat, and go home and sleep in a comfy bed instead of staying up all night.

There are other threats, too.  Like health department regulations that make it a herculean task to get approval to open a real wood-burning pit.  Like a fast-food restaurant industry where the never-ending race to the bottom makes it hard for a slow-cooked product to compete with four dollar combo meals and computer-controlled deep fryers.

Going old school and winning one of the new fangled festivals with some old fashioned pig would be sweet.  But even sweeter would be keeping our rich, ever-evolving barbecue tradition moving forward in the right direction.  For my money, that means getting more good barbecue joints onto more street corners, with a new generation of barbecue kings learning the glories of cooking over wood and letting smoke and time work its magic.

No, I have no idea how that's going to happen. But still I have hope.          


nmisscommenter said...

I think competition barbecue is a menace, but you are correct that it isn't nearly the menace those commercial cookers are. The commercial cookers are really evil.

I noticed the effect of competition barbecue in the late 80s or early 90s in the Memphis area; a couple of winners at Memphis in May opened places, and some other places began to imitate competition-style shoulder, with an emphasis on shredded-tender (which, when held, becomes unappealing mush). This has had close to zero impact on the traditional places but has lead to a proliferation of lousy (high visibility) places.

I wonder if this seems to have less impact farther away from Memphis...

bbqpitstop said...

always cracks me up when someone thinks the commercial cookers are evil.....heat is heat and wood is wood....they both exist in commercial units. There are a few tricks necessary to avoid mush, to garner a good smoke ring and to create a crispy bark on some of them but it can be done. The biggest advantage to the commercial ovens over traditional pits is that over time and quantity you consistently produce a juicier product. And rarely is anything "overcooked" which is rampant in traditional pit type places. Usually these pit places are smoke and mirrors anyway. Especially in the "legendary" pits of Texas that have their pictures in large coffee table books and recipe books. Most will let on if you ask, that they have a commisary down the street for volume and it's running four sometimes five pits. Hit up Sadler's place. While not a fan of their mass produced cryovac grocery product, if you eat fresh off their custom commercial pits you'd be hard pressed to blindly pick a dug pit product over theirs. Promise.

nmisscommenter said...

heat and wood are not the only elements in a cooking environment. The word "juicier" tells a lot of the tale-- my experience with pits and relatively airtight rigs (I have never used a commercial cooker myself) made me realize that a large part of the difference between a pit and an oven is that a pit is not as humid an environment. Properly worked, a pit produces quite different results.

Robert said...

Been thinking more about this one. Competition barbecue, as in Memphis, did indeed have an impact on the BBQ restaurant scene here in Charleston as over the past few years several different guys who had cut their teeth on the competition circuit opened barbecue restaurants around town. And, the meat definitely had that competition-style, injected with flavorings and cooked till fall-apart-under-your-fork tender.

I can think of at least three such places that opened in the past couple of years. None of them lasted more than 18 months, though I don't know if that's any reflection on the barbecue itself or just how hard it is to make a go of it in the restaurant business.

James said...

To say that competition barbecue is estranged from the regional "legends" of 20th century barbecue is an understatement. It's a weighty subject, but one comment I would offer is that the constraints and benchmarks of competition judging do have an impact on what the media, local diners, families, and maybe even dogs perceive to be a legitimate barbecue establishment. Whether or not the swelling of competition barbecue threatens its more historic forebears, there are many of barbecue lovers and cooks today whose seminal experiences with the craft were at KCBS competitions. I was kidding about the dogs; they tend to be uncorruptible.

A tangent: I've been to Memphis and May and I've judged at the Jack. During one interview, I asked a veteran cook about what smoke houses inspired him outside of the competition circuit. He responded, "Oh, I never eat commercial barbecue," and walked away against a backdrop of sponsorship banners. Do prize winners at Memphis in May still receive a matching cash reward from Cattleman's for saying "Thank you, Cattleman's" as they receive their trophies? The ecosystem is fascinating.

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