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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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood