Summer is fading fast, and though, according to my calendar, “the Autumnal Equinox” (is that the newest model of Hyundai?) isn’t until September 22, all the things we love about the season — swimming, county fairs, outdoor drinking, the August congressional recess — are essentially over after this weekend. And while people mark Labor Day in different ways, one of the best is with a barbecue, one of the few culinary traditions America can truly call its own.
Smithsonian Magazine tells us barbecue has its origins in the first indigenous tribes Christopher Columbus encountered, who had a “unique method for cooking meat over an indirect flame, created using green wood to keep the food (and wood) from burning. Reports indicate that the Spanish referred to this new style of cooking as barbacoa: the original barbecue.”
In the intervening 480 years, we have, of course, managed to make barbecue our own by applying our signature American boldness and innovation to the cuisine.
Barbecue joints tend to be saucy in more ways than one. Innuendos about preferring big racks and every butt loving a good rub set the tone for a genre of food whose concept (if not spelling) is as straightforward as cooked meat and about four options for sides.
This is not to say there is no nuance in barbecue. No way José. I would sooner ask Joe Biden for driving directions than I would tell a beefy, bearded grill master with a butcher cut diagram tattoo on his neck that his process is “simple.” And that’s the best part of barbecue culture — the way reformed members of the Hells Angels dedicate years to theorizing about and refining their “special rub” with *smoked not hot* paprika and other secrets. These macho men grab whole hog sides, toss them on a table, then trim their hand-selected slabs of meat with the delicacy of a British housewife pruning her prized roses. They cook the carcass “slow and low” in inventive smokers with the fastidiousness of a French pastry chef laboring over the perfect soufflé.
Then there’s the barbecue sauce. To use it or not is a debate all its own, with some arguing the meat should speak for itself (and for its chef), while others insist “the sauce is the boss.” Apparently there are at least twelve regional styles of barbecue sauce, resulting in a sweet, tangy, vinegary, thick, liquidy melting pot that is nothing if not all-American.
My brother and I once spiced up a road trip with a barbecue taste test. We stood in line for an hour at Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que in Missouri (it’s inside a gas station), and later enjoyed delicious brisket and pulled pork across from an off-duty Elvis Presley impersonator at Corky’s Ribs & Bar-B-Q in Memphis. I attended college in Texas and grew accustomed to eating Dickey’s BBQ Pit leftovers because my roommate worked there. This summer, I attended the “Kill the Grill smoke-only BBQ competition” at an elk conservation center (a “smoke free facility”), where I watched ordinary visitors unleash their inner Neanderthal, gnawing on ribs, and licking greasy fat, gristle, and sinew charred over open flame off their faces and hands.
The “positively primeval” nature of barbecue culture and its aggressive spirit is offset by a playful take on the morbid — cutesy drawings of pigs in sunglasses, smiling and sipping an umbrella drink from a straw while flames consume them. You know the schtick. It’s odd if you think about it. And you aren’t meant to. You are simply supposed to enjoy the near-perfect human pleasure that is perfectly smoked fat and protein, for which there is no better marketing that the smell of barbecue itself.
When the local newspaper here in Pennsylvania reported that a neighbor was complaining to the borough council about “smoke smells” coming from a nearby barbecue restaurant, the establishment’s owner addressed the complaint, saying he was doing his best to mitigate the wafting. The outpouring of support was massive — hundreds of likes and comments. A smattering: “Some people just need to get a life!! Where I live people burn their trash!! I’d love to have the smell of BBQ smoke then trash!!” “Not too many smells that are better than the smell of a BBQ! Maybe they’re mad ‘cos you’re making them hungry.” “Must be vegan. Keep up the good work!”
There’s nothing like barbecue to draw a crowd, unite society, satisfy gluttony, and celebrate our heritage. And by the way, my brother and I have determined from our rather extensive investigation into barbecue: it’s all good. Some styles may appeal more or less to one person’s tastes, but smoking fatty meat is hard to do wrong. And if you do mess up, you at least have that aroma. And any number of accompanying “salads” made with mayonnaise.