1980 to the present
The more smoke and neon the better the barbecue. Next to peanut butter, it is America's national food and there are more varieties than there are states in the union. Death and taxes aren't the great levelers, barbecue is.
At a place like Bob Sykes's Barbecue in Bessemer, AL the guy licking the grease on his fingers and picking his teeth with a toothpick is just as likely to be the president of the city's famous steelworks as a worker at the blast furnace.Back in the 1960's Martin Luther King used to sit in a rear booth at Aleck's Barbecue Heaven in Atlanta while gnawing on ribs with other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Nowadays hedge fund honchos of the New South stop by to pick up orders to take with them on their private jets. Wilber's Barbecue in Goldsboro, NC ecumenically boasts that George Bush, Sr, Bill Clinton and Jesse Helms have all sat down to their specialty, pork plate with side orders of fried liver and gizzards. Underbones Lounge at Redbones Barbecue in student-saturated Boston has valet parking for fixed gear bicycles.
All across the South, long before the Civil War, different cuts of cheap meat, particularly pig, were cooked and smoked for hours for cowboys, slaves and the poor. The meat was often rubbed, poked and seasoned, then drenched in sauce. "Pig pickin's," church picnics and political rallies soon sprung up. With cars and highways came a steady evolution from a communal pit at the plantation big house to the roadhouse glowing in neon, now the industry standard in all its retro glory.
Some etymologists claim that the term barbecue may originally be French, "de barbe a queue," literally translated, "from chin to tail," meaning roasting a whole animal on a spit. Others plump for barbacoa; a Caribbean, subsequently Spanish word for meat swathed in tropical leaves and cooked underground. Then there is the Mayan term baalbak kab (meat, cover, earth) and countless other references from Hungary to Polynesia but for most people it is just three large capital letters.
In the Carolinas your hog can arrive adjacent to a mountain of deep-fried corn meal bullets known as hushpuppies, accompanied by an ice-filled glass of highly sugared tea brought to the table by an equally sweet Christian lady. In Texas, the brisket comes wrapped in newspaper and is washed down with a freezing cold beer slid along the counter directly into your hand. Barbecue sauces are state secrets. There was a sign by a "smoker" in the South End of Boston saying, "you can beat my meat but you can't touch my sauce!" At The Original Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City they say there is blood in the recipe. One guy in Chattanooga mixes his ingredients in a metal tub with a canoe paddle. In Missouri a particularly coveted sauce is concocted by a retired veterinarian in his basement and marketed as "liquid smoke."
Blood, smoke and secrets aside, one thing is certain, real barbecue isn't meat cooked quickly over hot coals or a gas flame in a suburban backyard. That's grilling.
(c) JIM DOW 2011