- Historic Sites
It’s the most purely American food-and that’s maybe the only thing about it everyone agrees on
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
But it was only in the 1980s that barbecue really started going mainstream. That was when big barbecue contests began, pulling in thousands of middle-class Americans from every part of the country (although few contest participants are black). Also, books and cookbooks about barbecue started pouring out from publishers (notably, most are written by men). Upscale barbecue restaurants have opened in New York and Los Angeles, and sometimes it seems you can’t turn around without getting hit with a recipe for barbecue sauce. Yet as fashionable as barbecue is, some are afraid that real barbecue, that old long, low, and slow barbecue, may be on the endangered list. Air-pollution laws make it difficult for log burners to do their thing not only in big cities but increasingly in the countryside as well. Health regulations make it tough for some of the old-fashioned outfits to stay open, to say nothing of the health police’s concern about the possible carcinogenic effects of barbecued meat. And then there’s the fact that most diehard barbecue cooks are middle-aged or older. Ed Mitchell is mighty proud of his whole-hog barbecue cooked over real hickory but feels his son is more interested in programming his computer than inshoveling coals, and Ed worries about what will happen after he retires.
Still, where there’s smoke, there’s hope. And you’ve got to believe that anything people are this passionate about will survive, one way or another. I recently went to Lexington Barbecue, in Lexington, North Carolina, where a few years back the founder, Wayne Monk, was quoted as saying, “As long as I’m the one making the decisions, we’ll continue to cook and serve our barbecue the way we always have.” The place was crowded—it serves about 1,200 people a day—but that didn’t stop the waitresses from topping up my sweetened iced tea practically every time I took a sip. After a short, tantalizing wait, I got my tray of “outside meat,” hauntingly delicious dark and crusty slices of pork shoulder that had been cooking over hickory and oak charcoal for 12 hours. Monk’s son-in-law surveyed the bustling scene and mentioned that quite a few of the staff were younger family members who seemed interested in carrying on the family tradition. “This is as good as it gets,” he said, with satisfaction. Whether he meant the busy restaurant or the barbecue or both, it didn’t really matter. He was right on all counts.