The more smoke and neon, the better the barbecue. Next to peanut butter, it is America’s national food, with more varieties than there are states in the union. Death and taxes aren’t the great levellers, barbecue is. At the Bob Sykes Barbecue in Bessemer, Alamaba, the guy 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 1960s, Martin Luther King used to gnaw on ribs at Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven, Atlanta. Nowadays hedge fund honchos pick up orders to take on their private jets. Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro, North Carolina, boasts that George Bush Sr, Bill Clinton and Jesse Helms have all sat down to pork plates 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, cuts of cheap meat, particularly pig, were cooked and smoked. The meat was often rubbed, poked and seasoned, then drenched in sauce. “Pig pickin’s”, church picnics and political rallies soon sprung up. With 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 word barbecue may derive from the French “barbe à queue”, “beard to tail”, meaning roasting a whole animal on a spit. Others plump for barbacoa, a Caribbean word for meat swathed in leaves and cooked underground. Then there is the Mayan term baalbak kab (meat, cover, earth) … but for most it is just three large capital letters.
In the Carolinas your hog can arrive adjacent to a mountain of deep-fried cornmeal bullets known as hushpuppies, accompanied by an ice-filled glass of highly sugared tea. In Texas, the brisket comes wrapped in newspaper and is washed down with a freezing cold beer slid along the counter.
Barbecue sauces are state secrets. 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 coveted sauce is concocted by a retired veterinarian 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.
Jim Dow’s latest book of photographs, ‘American Studies’, is a powerHouse/CDS publication, £28.99.