Sunday, May 19, 2013

Everything Old Is New Again . . . Or Is It the Other Way Around?

So, over the weekend, Josh Ozersky pounded out a bit of a humdinger for the Wall Street Journal entitled "The New Barbecue", in which he profiled several upstart chefs who are taking on what he calls "the sacred cow of barbecue", a tradition he feels has "become so stagnant and so dogmatic that many pit masters haven't changed their recipes or routines in decades."

He praises Tim Rattray at San Antonio's Granary 'Cue & Brew for unmistakably modern dishes like Moroccan lamb shoulder on preserved lemon couscous. He gives an admiring nod to Tim Byers' coffee-cured brisket at Smoke in Dallas and Andy Husbands' smoked duck confit po boys at Tremont 647 in Boston.

As one might expect, there's was an immediate backlash. Daniel Vaughn, ardent champion of brisket and author of the just-released Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue, traded Twitter barbs with Ozersky, including "You say stagnant and dogmatic, while I say traditional and reverent" and "100 year old techniques have lasted because they don't require improvement."

North Carolina blogger Porky LeSwine (a.k.a BBQJew) weighed in, too, labeling Ozersky's effort "a truly idiotic piece of writing" based upon "a startling lack of understanding of what barbecue is and what makes it great--tradition, family recipes refined over generations, simple techniques that render (literally) exquisite meat."

I suppose my view has a bit longer lens. The controversy brought to my mind a passage in an article that Rufus Jarman wrote for The Saturday Evening Post back in 1954, in which he described the reactions of barbecue purists to the rising tide of barbecue restaurants. These purists still held to the old 19th century tradition of barbecue as a gigantic outdoor event where hundreds if not thousands gathered to dine on whole animals cooked over a pit dug in the ground.

As Jarman reports, the new-fangled restaurant style of barbecue--the very "tradition" that Vaughn and LeSwine  so passionately defend today--struck the old timers in the 1950s as "an insult to the honorable name of barbecue", amounting to "an underdone pork roast served with a sauce so hot and bitter that the victim can't tell what he is eating."

Change has never come easy in the three-century history of American barbecue, but it has come all the same. I'm not quite sure I'm ready for a plate of beef shoulder garnished with coffee-laced quinoa and pickled celery, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's a harbinger of even more radical innovations to come.


The Fledgling's Gourmet said...

Using coffee in a dry rub is surprisingly good and there have been a few places here in Seattle that have been using it to great effect. I suppose it's more surprising that we didn't come up with it in the first place given our relationship with the bitter bean. All the quinoa sides, though will look really embarrassing in the next 7 to 10 years. Much like women looking at photos of themselves wearing big shoulder pads back in the 80's, chefs will be asking themselves 'why did I do that?'

Robert said...

I have to agree with you on the quinoa! Never have understood why it's so popular, and I love all sorts of grains and beans.

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