Is barbecue getting too trendy for its own good?
Whether amateurs or aficionados, people take their barbecue seriously. So when Zagat asked its readers what irked them about the barbecue scene these days, it shouldn't come as a surprise that they had a few bones to pick. One of their quibbles? Hipsters.
“I feel that real BBQ gets lost in the ‘hipness’ of BBQ right now,” one person wrote.
Some carnivores fear barbecue’s popularity will have a detrimental effect on one of America’s most sacred culinary art forms, according to the survey.
“The worry is that some tattooed 20-somethings with black frame glasses, who line up outside some of the country’s top ‘cue, care more about a cool environment than a solid lineup of meat,” wrote Zagat staffer James Mulcahy.
But barbecue experts and restaurateurs say we have nothing to fear: Hipsters and the newer establishments they frequent are not spoiling anyone's food. They're simply contributing to a dry-smoking culture that was established in America by the 19th century and continues to thrive as new restaurants open in unlikely places, with more experimentation and, oftentimes, higher prices.
New age barbecue
Daniel Delaney of Briskettown in Brooklyn is exactly the type of chef Jonathan Gold is referring to in his recent review of Los Angeles’ Bludso’s Bar & Que, when he says today’s barbecue soothsayers are “youngish bearded guys with Twitter accounts and a taste for craft beer.” Delaney oozes enthusiasm for barbecue — and an authentic, hybrid, Texas-meets-Brooklyn experience.
Yes, Delaney was selling his black pepper-rubbed brisket with the help of social media before he even had a brick-and-mortar store, and his restaurant has fashionable flourishes like exposed brick and that down-home, Americana-driven vibe that tends to draw a swarm of plaid shirts and cut-offs in New York City.
But it's much more than just aesthetics. Delaney, a New Jersey native, is devoted to Texas barbecue — studying it, making it and teaching customers about the process. After traveling to Texas, he spent over four years experimenting with smokers, and was drawn to the theatrical nature of restaurant environments.
"I didn't get into this because it's popular. I love barbecue," he told TODAY.com. "Our process is very laborious. It might be one of the more laborious styles of barbecue production, because we cook it outdoors 24 hours a day and only use hard wood."
New York City, like Los Angeles, is no longer devoid of good barbecue, and it's not just a fleeting trend.
“[Texas has] barbecue joints that have been going strong in three separate centuries, and our love for smoked meat won’t be crumbling like last week’s cupcake trend,” Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn told TODAY.com via email.
There's another customer complaint seemingly tied to some of the newer barbecue joints: the prices. It’s a peeve mentioned in Zagat’s survey, with one reader criticizing “BBQ that approaches lower fine-dining pricing in egotistic restaurants.”
But barbecue restaurant owners — whether old-school Southerners or Yankee-born aficionados – will tell you a lot has changed in the world of smoked meat since working class families made do with the less desirable parts of the animals. For one thing, many of today’s chefs and pitmasters are using hormone and antibiotic-free meats, without sacrificing the immense amount of time barbecue takes to get soft and smoky.
Pitmaster Pat Martin, who smokes up whole hogs at Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint in Nolensville, Tenn., bemoans the fact that he can only charge customers $5.50 for a pulled pork sandwich that he's cooked for 22 hours, while a hamburger in the same area goes for $9. He says he'll probably have to raise prices sometime next year.
And that's where those hip kids come in again. "A lot of the hipsters like barbecue and that's great," Martin says. "It doesn't bother me, it helps me, because I need to make more money for the work we put into it. Now you have chefs coming in who are using these techniques and charging for it. It exposes us more if they do the right thing."
Delaney thinks the future of cheap (good) barbecue is in question because the smoking process is too laborious to charge as little as $9 for a pound of brisket.
“It seems like the days of cheap barbecue are just over,” he said.
Then there’s the rising price of beef, which has also impacted the price of barbecue, according to Amy Mills Tunnicliffe, who consults restaurants and works with her pitmaster father, Mike Mills, at 17th Street Barbecue in Southern Illinois. Beef's wholesale price reached a record high on May 3, thanks to droughts and the lowest level of U.S. cattle since 1952, NBC News recently reported.
Customers will want to pay less if they expect less, and several barbecue experts believe the public’s appetite for competition-style barbecue with sickly sweet sauce is partially to blame.
“They’re basically candying their ribs,” Tunnicliffe said. “You have people that think that’s barbecue, but you would be sick if you ate a whole rack of those. They’re pandering for America.”
Even smoke-obsessed chef Edward Lee of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Ky., grew up thinking meat brushed with a sweet sauce (bearing a "cute little pig" label) was part and parcel of the barbecue tradition.
"For a long time that’s what I thought barbecue was," he told TODAY.com. "As you seek out a true barbecue spot, you’ll see it’s about the rub, cut of meat, salting times, and that different kinds of wood have an effect on the meat. True barbecue is not about the sauce, it’s about the wood, it’s about the smoke flavor ... we as chefs need to respect that tradition and understand the history of it."
Tunnicliffe is pleased that Brooklyn newcomers like Briskettown and Fletcher's Barbecue, which offers duck and lamb shank sliders, are eager to try something new while respecting old techniques and their histories. "That's what keeps it interesting," she said.
In other words, hipsters are the least of any barbecue devotee’s concern. Barbecue is about the meat — and the sweaty labor and passion that go into its creation. That meat transcends all trends, especially in Texas, where barbecue is the bedrock of the state’s culinary fabric and newer joints like Franklin Barbecue, named best barbecue in America by Bon Appetit, draw long lines not far from a family-owned establishment that’s been around since 1932: Black’s Barbecue.
“For those who complain that barbecue is becoming the territory of hipsters, they may be referring to some of the newly famous joints in Austin,” Vaughn wrote in an email. “Yes, there are skinny jeans and black-rimmed glasses found in lines for barbecue. But this is Austin. Black-rimmed glasses and skinny jeans can be found at Applebee's and Golden Corral too, but nobody's worried that the hipsters are going to ruin the chocolate fountain for all of us.”