Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Pointless Blather on BBQ

Food is riding a high in our culture right now. Chefs are celebrities. Consumers are connoisseurs. And dining out is primetime entertainment.

The media has picked-up on society’s love of food and feeds our seemingly insatiable appetite for food-related content. As is usually the case when a craze sweeps the country, certain participants are singled out for maximum exposure by the media. Unfortunately, they seem to bask in the spotlight a little too long, leaving them overdone and eventually, just plain over. I speak here not of the oddly compelling but ultimately annoying Emeril, or of the should-be-annoying but too darn adorable Rachel Ray. No the foodie whose reach has exceeded its taste, whose popularity has risen to idolatry, is known primarily by its initials – B.B.Q.

Sure BBQ can be delicious. Anyone who can serve it up right has a right to be proud. But can’t the same be said for pizza, fried chicken, and yellow-fin tuna served sashimi style? So why is it that the Food Channel devotes so many hours exclusively to BBQ’s honor? Why do regional squabbles erupt over vinegar-based versus tomato-based sauces? And why are we expected to bow to the grill masters who venture out once a weekend when the cooks in the kitchen are dishing out delectables and putting in regular hours?

There is a cult of BBQ that goes beyond whatever zesty, smoky slab of meat is eventually plated. BBQ definitely has blue collar appeal; it requires a patience that doesn’t play to the upscale crowd who crave instant-gratification. While those creating dishes in bistros may consider themselves artists working with a bountiful palette of flavors and textures, the cook tending the smoker is a craftsman, fine-tuning and tweaking their way towards succulence.

The long hours required to properly prepare ribs or brisket would seem to appeal to those who prefer solitude - just a man, some embers, and a fatted calf. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, it attracts an extremely social carnivore. One that is typically boisterous and ultra competitive. It’s this latter trait that is largely responsible for its popularity. BBQers are forever throwing down the gauntlet to see who reigns supreme and there is always a willing throng of spectators waiting to enjoy the spoils of the competition.

The SJ-R’s Kathy Rem wrote today of a BBQ cook-off held in conjunction with the recent downtown Blue’s festival. Memphis seems to be in a constant state of BBQ one-upsmanship. In fact, you can’t swing a dead sow anywhere in the South without hitting some self-proclaimed BBQ king walking around with a cedar chip on his shoulder. In all, BBQers will square-off at the drop of a match.

The combination of cooking and competition has allowed BBQ to capture two of the largest demographics in the country, which contributes greatly to its popularity. By moving the cooking from the backyard into the parking lot, it creates a much more natural environ for the NFL crowd by assuming a tailgating atmosphere. The NASCAR set is drawn because it allows them to display their caring and nurturing side, a good rub can only come from the heart, while at the same time appealing to their Type A personalities by turning slow-smoked cookery into hard-charging competition. In both cases, it also provides them ample time for drinking.

The BBQers themselves are passionate about their pursuit and wear their rib tips on their sleeves. Their customized grills are meant to intimidate, and perhaps compensate. They continue to up the ante in competition with the increasingly comical and often times risqué names they bestow upon their sauces (Slap My Ass and Call Me Sally?). Some have taken to wearing silly hats while others lead their crews in organized cheers. And it's all become too much.

Some may turn their noses up at BBQ and its unrefined sidekicks: coleslaw, baked beans, and the wet wipe. I don’t share that sentiment; I’m just getting tired of hearing about it. Let’s go ahead and crown someone the king or queen of BBQ and let them reign over the nation for five or ten years. Then BBQ can return to the backyard where it belongs and we no longer have to hear extensive dissertations praising aromatic wood smoke and vilifying the gas grill*.

And enough with the secret recipes already. They're all just basically a mix of ketchup and brown sugar aren't they?

*Pure blasphemy to Hank Hill

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