Tuesday, October 30

The Decline and Rebirth of American Barbecue

One last post from our guest blogger Robert Moss. 

Thank you, Robert, for enlightening us about barbecue history here on the blog all summer and fall. 

You can follow Robert on Twitter at @mossr, and be sure to check out his book, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution (University of Alabama Press, 2010).

The theme of last weekend’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium was “Barbecue: An Exploration of Pitmaster, Places, Smoke, and Sauce,” and it underscored the fact that the barbecue tradition is alive and thriving in the early years of the 21st century. And that makes it all the more surprising that at a particularly low point in the 1970s, it looked like this three-century American tradition might actually die out.

Once the king of the American restaurant industry, barbecue had been eclipsed by hamburgers with the rise of national fast-food chains in the 1960s. It was a food that didn’t lend itself to speed, standardization, and low labor costs. Hardwood was becoming scarce, too, driving up costs for barbecue restaurateurs and forcing pitmasters to get creative and seek out sawmills and furniture factories for leftover scraps. Keith Stamey of Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro noted that it “used to be that we wouldn’t give out our recipes, but we’re now more secretive about our wood than our recipes.”

Across the country, health departments began tightening regulations on open pits, making it all but impossible in many parts of the country to start a new wood-burning operation. Often, when a barbecue restaurant was sold, the new owner would convert to gas or electric cookers because it was just too onerous to get a permit to operate the old wood pits.

In 1977, Alton Beck of Beck’s Barbecue in Lexington, North Carolina, predicted that good barbecue was on its way to extinction. “The state will stop it,” he told the Charlotte Observer. “You can’t build a new pit in Lexington. The one here are now operating under the grandfather clause.”

For many Americans, “barbecue” had come to mean not meat slow cooked over wood but rather something defined by the sauce it was served in. In the backyard, wood gave way first to charcoal and then to gas grills. The cookbooks of the 1960s and 1970s were filled with recipes for “barbecued chicken” that involved no fire at all, just a pan of chicken parts baked in barbecue sauce. Barbecue had strayed a long way from the pit.

Rodney Scott of Hemingway, SC, is one of the pitmasters keeping the whole hog tradition alive. Photo by Brandall Atkinson

But, starting in the 1980s, barbecue staged a comeback. Journalists like Max Brantley, Jerry Bledsoe, and Calvin Trillin started celebrating American’s historic barbecue joints. Vince Staten and Greg Johnson published Real Barbecue in 1988, a guidebook to the top 100 barbecue restaurants in the country. It marked for the first time a recognition that barbecue was a classic American food.

In 1996, when Lolis Eric Elie set off with photographer Frank Stewart on the culinary tour chronicled in Smokestack Lightning, he hypothesized that “this art, so vital to our national identity, was dying or at least endangered.” Just a decade later, when he revisited the subject in the preface to the book’s second edition, he admitted being amazed by barbecue’s resurgence, which he attributed to “a longing for the old ways. A longing so strong it has brought real barbecue to relative prominence in places where it was previously little more than a novelty.”

That longing has just continued to strengthen. Barbecue is now available in more parts of the country and in a wider variety than ever before. Chefs are trading in their toques for overalls and learning to pit cook whole hogs. Enough barbecue cookbooks are published each year to fill an entire bookcase, and famous pitmasters duke it out on reality TV shows. You can even buy a decent pulled pork sandwich in New York City.

It’s been a delight to share glimpses of barbecue history with the readers of the SFA blog this summer, and if the enthusiasm demonstrated at the Symposium is any indication, barbecue seems destined to remain an essential part of Southern foodways for many decades to come.