True barbecue’s a game of smoke and dithers

Britain has finally been bitten by the barbecue bug.

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.

 

In Texas, you can get your pork roasted in the hot pit for as long as you like. Photo: Marcus Nilsson/Gallery Stock

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Harry Styles: What can three blank Instagram posts tell us about music promotion?

Do the One Direction star’s latest posts tell us about the future of music promotion in the social media age - or take us back to a bygone era?

Yesterday, Harry Styles posted three identical, captionless blank images to Instagram. He offered no explanation on any other social network, and left no clue via location serves or tagged accounts as to what the pictures might mean. There was nothing about any of the individual images that suggested they might have significance beyond their surface existence.

And, predictably, they brought in over a million likes – and thousands of Styles fans decoding them with the forensic dedication of the cast of Silent Witness.

Of course, the Instagrams are deliberately provocative in their vagueness. They reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s three-panelled White Painting (1951), or Robert Ryman’s Untitled, three square blank canvases that hang in the Pompidou Centre. The composer John Cage claimed that the significance of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings lay in their status as receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them. The significance of Styles’s Instagrams arguably, too, only gain cultural relevance as his audience engages with them.

So what did fans make of the cryptic posts? Some posited a modelling career announcement would follow, others theorised that it was a nod to a Taylor Swift song “Blank Space”, and that the former couple would soon confirm they were back together. Still more thought this suggested an oncoming solo album launch.

You can understand why a solo album launch would be on the tip of most fans’ tongues. Instagram has become a popular platform for the cryptic musical announcement — In April, Beyoncé teased Lemonade’s world premiere with a short Instagram video – keeping her face, and the significance behind the title Lemonade, hidden.

Creating a void is often seen as the ultimate way to tease fans and whet appetites. In June last year, The 1975 temporarily deleted their Instagram, a key platform in building the band’s grungy, black and white brand, in the lead up to the announcement of their second album, which involved a shift in aesthetic to pastel pinks and bright neons.

The Weekend wiped his, too, just last week – ahead of the release of his new single “Starboy”. Blank Instagrams are popular across the network. Jaden Smith has posted hundreds of them, seemingly with no wider philosophical point behind them, though he did tweet in April last year, “Instagram Is A BlackHole Of Time And Energy.”

The motive behind Harry’s blank posts perhaps seems somewhat anticlimactic – an interview with magazine Another Man, and three covers, with three different hairstyles, to go along with it. But presumably the interview coincides with the promotion of something new – hopefully, something other than his new film Dunkirk and the latest update on his beloved tresses. In fact, those blank Instagrams could lead to a surprisingly traditional form of celebrity announcement – one that surfaces to the world via the print press.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.