Did you barbecue last weekend? Did you huddle round one of those dinky disposable numbers in the park, perhaps, or fire up the gas behemoth in the back garden for a couple of burgers? Well, if so, I’ve got news for you, sunshine: you didn’t barbecue. You grilled.
Should you be confused by the distinction, grilling involves charring food over a high heat, often leaving it burnt on the outside and raw within. Real barbecue, by contrast, as practised in the southern United States, is a long, slow business in which large cuts of meat, often whole animals, are gently smoked in pits – a process that can take hours, even days.
Old-fashioned barbecue joints still employ men to tend the fires overnight, tenderly stoking the cinders around the hogs (in much of the South, “barbecue” equals pig – hence the herds of cheery swine that beckon enticingly from restaurant signs along every highway), so that by the time lunchtime comes around they’re cooked to finger-licking perfection. And barbecue is almost always a lunch thing in its homeland; a good spot will have sold out and closed up by one in the afternoon.
The idea of roasting meat over embers was probably picked up from Native Americans – the celebratory pig slaughter and feast in autumn, common to many European cultures, became, in this new world, a barbecue. These days it serves much the same function as the annual church picnic or tailgate party, bringing whole communities together to pig out happily on pork.
Indeed, this has long been an event that transcends race and class. Within living memory, the harvest barbecue was the one time of year that black and white workers would sit down with each other, sharing meat cooked over the embers of the same fires that had cured the new season’s tobacco.
The power of good barbecue is such that, even during segregation, blacks and whites would patronise the same pits even if the law wouldn’t allow them to eat in the same dining room. If a black-owned restaurant did the best barbecue in town, then white people, “in a strange reversal of Jim Crow traditions, made stealthy excursions for take-out orders”, or so claims the Encyclopaedia of Southern Culture, which devotes an appropriately large entry to barbecue in all its glory.
That said, in 1968, the final battle to desegregate barbecue restaurants went all the way to the Supreme Court – nearly four years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act. In the South, change, like barbecue, takes its sweet time.
And though electric and gas grills may be more common than hardwood pits these days, minor regional distinctions are fiercely maintained: in the Carolinas, for example, they chop their pork, but in Tennessee they pull it. The journalist Michael Pollan quotes a friend’s description of barbecue as “basically like kashrut for goys”; there may be some very unkosher meat involved, but the precise rules governing these “acts of alimentary communion” seem similarly arbitrary to the hungry outsider.
Yet the beauty of being an outsider is that you don’t have to worry about whether pulled pork is really barbecue, or if the sauce should go on before or after serving – because, as they’d say down South, when it comes to barbecue, y’all don’t know whether to check your ass or scratch your watch.
Maybe not for long, though: Britain has finally been bitten by the barbecue bug. There’s Bar-B-Q Shack in Brighton, Pitt Cue Co and the Smokehouse (the new boy) in London, Fire & Salt in Manchester, Jones & Son serving up pulled pork at Edinburgh’s weekend markets – and no doubt many more plying their smoky trade in pubs and at festivals and on kerbsides around the country.
So if you do come across the good stuff anywhere, please seize the chance, and the napkins, with both hands. And don’t, whatever you do, ask for HP Sauce.