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.