Two weekends ago, I ate roughly my body weight in barbecued pork. Possibly more. I’d been asked to judge at Hogs for the Cause, an annual competition that raises money for families affected by pediatric brain cancer. Some 85 teams, both pros and amateurs, participated in this year’s event, which took over a sizable portion of New Orleans City Park.
Between rounds of judging, I strolled around. Parts of the grounds felt like an army encampment during the Civil War. A persistent smoke drifted through live oaks and cast a sepia pall over the tents. Beards and plaid shirts extended as far as the eye could see. Burly dudes amped on smoked meat erupted in occasional battle cries.
The sense that I was part of an invading force may have been enhanced by an oft-repeated notion hereabouts: that BBQ is not native to the city’s culinary culture, that it’s an outsider’s food. “The line about New Orleans not having good barbecue is one I’ve heard forever,” said David Berriss, chair of the department of anthropology at the University of New Orleans. It’s not that the city is averse to pork, he adds, but residents have found many other ways to consume it—making tasso, grinding it into sausage, adding it to gumbo and jambalaya.
But Berriss noted that it’s long been around, just not front and center. And in a cursory review of newspaper databases, I found that barbecue does have something of a history here. Actually, two histories.
First, it appears that meat slow-cooked over smoke migrated to the city when freed slaves made their way here in the late 19th century. It showed up in New Orleans much as it showed up in Chicago and Memphis. But it was country cooking, and so it was carried out largely unobserved in the precincts back-of-town, and shunned by the respected Creole restaurants for which the city was famous. Still, in 1947 the Old Hickory Inn, located far out on Tulane Avenue, boasted in the local paper of having “New Orleans finest barbecue pit,” with chicken, pork, and beef smoked over hickory and oak. The inn did not appear in any travel guides I know of.
Second, New Orleans seemed to achieve barbecue prominence in the 1950s, although in a bastardized form. This was an era when ease trumped all, when those who pioneered shortcuts to cooking were hailed as heroes. (Think: mushroom soup on a casserole, or Jell-O salad.)
So out went the laborious, inconvenient fire pit or smoker. In came fire-free “barbecue.” A 1951 wire-service story, for instance, exclaimed that “New Orleans Barbecue Ribs Are Kind to Food Budget.” The recipe called for boiling ribs into submission, slathering them in sauce, then baking them. Today this approach persists somewhat at the classic Pascal’s Manale restaurant in the form of barbecue shrimp. The dish was invented in 1954, became a hit, and remains popular. It consists of unshelled shrimp sautéed in a spicy sauce. These shrimp, it should be noted, have not come within several blocks of smoke or open fire. It’s barbecue in name only.
The barbecue served up at Hogs for the Cause represents what looks to be at least a third wave of barbecue to invade the city. Culturally, it’s not connected to either of the two earlier waves—the competing teams appeared to consist mostly of white guys, some of whom were cooking under the banner of their white-collar employers. But this barbecue is linked to a broader national trend: the artisanization of everyday cooking in which the craft is unmoored to heritage or history. Like artisanal pickles and wood-fired pizza, barbecue becomes a means for folks to express their creativity and hone their skills, not necessarily to carry on the traditions of their forebears.
Of course, this invasion isn’t unique to New Orleans. Barbecue-as-craft has found its way into cities all over the country. If you Google “new barbecue capital,” you’ll see that it’s no longer Memphis or Kansas City or Lockhart, Texas. It’s now Brooklyn. Or perhaps Nashville or Austin or Beijing, or wait, no … it’s San Bernadino and Riverside counties, California. (Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold once asked, “Could barbecue be the cupcake of 2013?”)
Or perhaps New Orleans. We’ve had a slew of good barbecue restaurants open in the past few years. In that and other ways, New Orleans restaurants are at once exploring their past as they also become more like everywhere else. More on that next week.
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