Meat ‘n Culture: Barbecue

By Christopher R. Raines

In the ‘States and elsewhere in the Western World, meat is has traditionally been a very celebrated center-of-plate item.  Envision some Norman Rockwell –esque images of holiday meals and you might notice how we tend to identify certain meats with certain holidays.

Examples include:

Meat and religious observances, such as during Lent, is another one of meat’s (and I suppose, fish’s) cultural highlights.  The concept of meat as a cultural identifier extends beyond holidays; it can also be a regional identifier.  Case-in-point:  Barbecue.

There are geographic (national) barbecue identities, such as Brazilian Churrasco or Argentinian Asado, as well as regional (i.e., within the U.S.).  Fascinating is the diversity of barbecue in the United States and the passions behind each style.  There’s Memphis barbecue, Kansas City barbecue, barbecue of the Carolinas, Texas barbecue, the list goes on.  The secret might be the sauce, the smoke, or the meat itself.

I am a Yankee, and I know I love barbecue.  I’ve sampled barbecue from all over the U.S., and in my taste, some were absolutely delicious and others were simply disgusting.  My personal preference is usually dry-rubbed, smoked, slow-cooked and oh-so-delicious brisket (I’m not big on BBQ sauce – to me, it takes away from the meat).  Up here in PA we have smokehouses, spice blends, hardwoods.  I know a guy from Lancaster, PA, who once fixed some of the best brisket I’ve ever eaten (and he’s a New Jersey native).  Trumping it was a beef Tri-tip seasoned with a special rub (throw in a little California spin) — also cooked by the same Yankee.  Such delight was possible because of the nature of barbecue, how it is an amalgamation of so many cultures.

I realized the wonderment that is barbecue after reading the book The Republic of Barbecue, a book chronicling the history and diversity of Texas barbecue.  It’s history is rich and represents so many cultures including Creole, Mexican, and Czech.  Heavily influencing barbecue today are practices brought to America with the slave trade.  The book describes so many scales of barbecue production, from the ‘Mom & Popshop you can find in almost every small Texas town, to meat processing plants operated by families steeped in barbecue history.

We are constantly bombarded with news stories about food safety, food borne illness, what not to eat.  In The Republic of Barbecue, the story of adaptation by barbecuers is well conveyed, how they are artisans whom operate under strict regulatory protocols.  I’m a self-confessed meat geek, and this book had a lot of meat to digest.  I’ll be going back for seconds.