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Mostly everyone around me is confused by what I did this summer. Probably you people out there on the great wide Internet are even more confused because, if you were following along, you noticed that I was randomly moving between Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands.
I got a grant this summer from UNC Chapel Hill to do research about barbecue and Southern identity in and outside the South. (You're probably thinking that I'm the reason that conservatives think universities aren't preparing people for real world, and you may not be wrong.) I did interviews in New York City and Berlin, Germany with folks who are cooking and selling barbecue inspired by the type of barbecue that we eat here in the American South.
The day after I flew to New York, I went to the Big Apple BBQ Block party which is basically an event where 14 of the best barbecue spots in the country cook huge quantities of meat on all the streets surrounding Madison Square Park. It’s hilarious because suddenly Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue are taken over by a bunch of Southerners in overalls (not kidding) cooking meat. When I got off the subway, I could see the smoke and smell the meat before I saw the event.
North Carolina was well represented by Sam Jones and Ed Mitchell, but I was particularly interested in Blue Smoke, which is a barbecue restaurant in the of the Financial District of Manhattan. They also have a location in the Flatiron district. Jean-Paul Bourgeois, the Executive Chef, is from Louisiana, but the menu at the restaurant includes baby back ribs, brisket, pulled pork and spare ribs, as well as Alabama white wings, which they were serving at the Block Party.
I’ll be straight with you – I was super skeptical of Bourgeois. The menu seemed like it was treating the South as a generalization, as if the regionality of barbecue in the South could be boiled down and sold with a sweep of the hand. One of the things I wanted to explore in this research was the way that non-southerners perceive us (southerners) as foreign, and Bourgeois brought that up without me even having to ask.
“You know a lot of times I feel like I’m cooking ethnic food here. Tapas restaurants or the Chinese restaurants or the Indian restaurant… [New York has] more of those type of restaurants than they do southern restaurants. And we’re talking about America here and the biggest city in the country. And it can feel that way in some ways it feels…I wouldn’t say disheartening. I’d just say that it takes a little more education… In a lot of ways that’s exciting to be somebody that’s a spokesperson… But we’re getting there. …You wouldn’t be here right now talking about it if there wasn’t an acknowledgement of the cuisine even in this city."
And of course that's a great point. He is a spokesperson - a lot of people who go to New York will probably never visit any part of the American South. But maybe they'll go to Blue Smoke and have an experience that paints us better than we might otherwise be seen based on the media and our state governments.
His discussion of what it’s like to serve Southern food in New York City helped me realize what is now obvious to me – because Southern food and barbecue are so place-based; they are necessarily different in different places. The food Bourgeois serves has a different purpose than the food that I eat in Chapel Hill at places like Mama Dip’s or Crook’s Corner, and that is completely fine. We have to tell people about ourselves in a way that they can relate to.
OK. So, now we can talk about why I picked Berlin, Germany as a place to learn about barbecue. There’s no good reason that I originally looked into Berlin, but when I was developing my proposal for this research I was interested in seeing if other countries treat American food the way we treat, say, Chinese food (bastardizing it, that is). As it turns out, in the last four years, there’s been an explosion of Southern barbecue in Berlin.
Additionally, some scholars (my two barbecue scholar gods) like the authors of books like this one and this one think that German immigrants have had a really important hand in creating the barbecue cultures of North Carolina and Texas. I found this out later, but I still count it as a reason that I did research there.
I interviewed Anna and Tobi of Big Stuff Smoked barbecue, as well as Adam of The Pit. Anna and Tobi opened four years ago and were pretty much the first barbecue in the city. Anna went to graduate school in New York and, as an Italian, identified with how Americans are invested in their barbecue. She recognized similarities to her own Sardinian upbringing - in the lore and emotion and connection that surrounds the meat. She and Tobi, who is German, decided that barbecue was necessary in Berlin and that they should be the ones to bring it. They found a space in the now-famous Markthalle Neun and opened a stand and a bar.
Adam lived in Texas while he was growing up and came to Berlin to work in IT. He began trying to smoke brisket for friends and coworkers and basically fell down a rabbit hole. His restaurant officially opened the week before I got there.
Here’s the thing that surprised me. In a lot of ways, Adam’s barbecue is the most authentic stuff I had, possibly on my whole trip. He smokes it in a way that would be respectable to even the most critical Texan brisket-eater – staying up all night once a week to smoke brisket over a flame that he maintains himself. But his food was also the most expensive, probably because he imports his beef from Montana, and he expressed a lot of frustration to me about feeling like the Germans “didn’t get it.” I’m still not completely sure what this means – it had a lot to do with the fact that the Berliners don’t understand why it’s important that he does it the way he does. He brushed off a lot of the compliments that people paid him because they, apparently, don’t understand what he’s doing.
Big Stuff, on the other hand, would be objectionable to a lot of people. They use an electric smoker that doesn’t have a flame that needs to be maintained. This is sacrilegious in the barbecue community in the United States. There’s smoke, but no flame. They bought it because the Pitmaster at Franklin advised them. So yes, before I started this project, I would have said they were bastardizing what barbecue is and what it stands for.
But they’re not. Their location in the Markthalle means that they are in a space that is open and accessible to people of all walks of life. Tobi told me the thing he is most proud of about their business is that he sees an eighty-year old woman who has lived in that neighborhood her whole life waiting in line for a pulled pork sandwich next to a 22-year old British expat. It is hugely important to them that the product and space they’ve created is not just high quality, but that it is a place populated not only by the hipsters of Berlin but also by older, more traditionally German people.
It's a democratic way to serve high quality through a democratic process. - Tobi
Anna told me the thing she is most proud of is the relationship that they’ve created with butchers and farmers across Germany in order to get them to produce cuts of meat that they can use, rather than importing things. A lot of the cuts they're using, like brisket, are ones that aren't as popular in Germany and might otherwise be wasted or cut differently, so they've had to communicate with the producers and the butchers to get the meat they need. As Anna put it, "We thought it'd be ridiculous to go and import meat from the other side of the planet."
I think that what Anna and Tobi are doing is much closer to the truth of barbecue than what Adam is doing. Sure, his product might be closer to what you would eat in Texas, and to some people that’s what authenticity is – just a recreation of food as exactly as it can be done. But, to me anyway, the truth of barbecue is that it’s a food that was eaten by working class people and became a great equalizer in the South. Politicians ate at rundown barbecue shops alongside blue-collar workers. Pig pickings were one of the only places that racial tension relaxed. Those are the moments that have made barbecue important to us, and recreating that is much more important than recreating any recipe.
This work is important to me and, I think, worthy of academic research because the world is changing. The way that the United States perceives the South is changing, which means the world also sees us differently. In many ways, barbecue and the culture that exists around it in the South is a holdover from what it used to be. I’m not in favor of stagnation in the south. There’s a lot of difficult stuff associated with barbecue – race issues, class issues, environmental problems caused by hog farming. I think it’s important that we look at barbecue for what it is and pick out what we think is worth holding onto.