A Reluctant Defense of Brisket
Down in Texas, I am sure, legions of barbecue fans are circling the pickup trucks and heating the branding irons, for the folks over at Eater are stirring up trouble. Chris Fuhrmeister, the editor of Eater Atlanta, has laid down the gauntlet and declared that barbecue is one thing and one thing only: “pork that’s slow-cooked with smoke.”
Such manifestos are nothing new. Barbecue scribblers have been making inflammatory statements about one regional style or another for as long as we’ve had barbecue scribblers. These days, I imagine, they do wonders for web traffic, but do they do much for the larger cause of barbecue?
When a bunch of misguided Texans make fatuous claims like “Texas barbecue has no peer on earth” and “anyone with half a brain can cook pork,” I am compelled to rally to the defense of the pig. But the same principles apply in reverse. As much as it pains me as a native Carolinian to say nice things about Texas, I must also come to the defense of brisket and beef ribs when they are under attack.
Let’s take a look at Fuhrmeister’s arguments, such as they are. He cites a barbecue-is-pork statement from chef John Currence, claiming that Currence must be an “authority on the subject” since he was born in New Orleans, won the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: South, and owns a restaurant empire.
None of these things would make someone an authority on the subject of barbecue (being born in New Orleans?), though they wouldn’t necessarily rule it out, either. The fact that Currence cooks whole-hog barbecue at his Lamar Lounge certainly gives him some barbecue street cred, but wouldn’t that also bias him in favor of pork? (And I'll note that Fuhrmeister didn't ask Aaron Franklin about the subject, though Franklin has one of those fancy James Beard Awards for Best Chef, too.)
Fuhrmeister also cites several historical examples of colonists' roasting pigs in the barbecue style, which indeed they did. But if you go back and read historical accounts of 18th and 19th century barbecues, you’ll see they threw just about every other four-legged animal on the pits, too—goat, sheep, venison, and, yes, plenty of cattle—along with flocks of chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese. What may be the first barbecue stand in the Carolinas, opened by Levi and Katie Nunn in Charlotte in 1899, advertised beef, pork, and mutton—in that order. The primacy of the pig in the Carolinas and Georgia was a 20th century development.
Fuhrmeister even goes so far as to cite me in support for his cause, quoting a piece I wrote a few years ago on how to spot a good barbecue joint. I repeated an old saw about how you can score a restaurant’s quality based upon the the number of human-like things the pig on the sign is doing. "A realistic pig just standing there: zero points. A pig standing up and wearing a hat: two points. A standing pig in a hat and overalls strumming a banjo, winking, and turning a barbecue spit (or feasting on his brethren) — well, just pull right on over. You have found a winner."
Just between you and me, Chris, I wasn’t actually being serious when I wrote that. And, besides, if I saw a BBQ joint with a cow on the sign plucking a banjo, I would slam on the brakes immediately. It may not be a surefire sign of great barbecue, but it would certainly be worth checking out—especially if I were in Texas.
In the end, the great diversity of barbecue meats—and cooking methods, and sauces, and sides—is something to celebrate. If brisket isn’t barbecue because barbecue can only be pork, then Owensboro-style smoked mutton must not be barbecue either. And I really like smoked mutton, and barbecue chicken, too. And turkey legs. And juicy links. And goat.
They’re all delicious. And, yes, they all are barbecue.