Why is Brooklyn barbecue taking over the world? The provocative question asked on social media by Vice vertical Munchies, lit Twitter up like a grease fire. The tweet was accompanied by what looks like to me an iPhone picture of the writer’s truly underwhelming lunch of brisket and pickles at Fette Sau in Brooklyn.
With each hour and passing day the flames grew higher as pictures of grim meals—a Lunchables box, a cafeteria tray, a single Dorito—were zipping around under the same or similar titles. Seemingly every newspaper in the South piled on to make a comment. Even Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted “Bless your hearts.” The message was clear, don’t provoke serious barbecue enthusiasts unless you’re ready for a fight.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out immediately, as Daniel Vaughan did in Texas Monthly, that the actual Munchies story written by Nicholas Gill, is a pretty solid rumination on the fact that everywhere you go these days, things look like Brooklyn. It could have been more aptly titled: “Subway Tile is the Most Popular Tile in the World.” (And that’s not to mention that I’ve also eaten lunch at Fette Sau in Brooklyn, and I promise you, my tray didn’t look anything like the photo that was used for the offending post.)
While we brace ourselves for the next clickbait cannon shot, whatever it may be—real chili has asparagus? the best crab joint in the U.S. is in Detroit?—let’s take a second to reflect on what went down with the Brooklyn BBQ brouhaha and what many pit masters missed in their rush to dismiss the prospect that there might be good brisket in the five boroughs.
So I called the king of barbecue, Steven Raichlen, author of the best-seller The Barbecue Bible and countless other BBQ books, for his expert opinion. He actually just finished shooting a series that’s going to hit Italian television soon about, you guessed it, grilling.
His take on the international interest in American BBQ culture? “Well, good,” he said. “Look at the last stuff we exported!” He reeled off a list of junk food. “It’s encouraging that it’s not the chains that we’re exporting. It’s these highly talented individuals.”
Raichlen even recently judged a barbecue contest in Italy. I asked how the food was. He paused. “It was a work in progress,” he laughed.
He also wrote a piece about the Parisian restaurant The Beast. Frenchman Thomas Abromovitz lived in the United States for a spell, fell in love with Texas barbecue, and went back to Paris with a mission. He installed a huge smoker, and hired a guy from Montreal (they know from brisket up in Montreal) as his chef. To look at the pictures of the place is to see the exportation of the Brooklyn aesthetic in full force. Black back bar, exposed brick, metal trays. (Although one picture I saw was of a diner wielding an Opinel knife—we should reverse import that!)
Was that meal good? “French meat was too lean, too rich,” Raichlen told me. They had a hard time at the start. But he found a supplier out of Australia, and imported some American beef, and now it’s working better.
But Raichlen insists that we shouldn’t begrudge people their triumphs.
“Brooklyn has now emerged as one of the great barbecue regions of America,” said Raichlen. “I have immense respect for these guys.”
Are you more likely to get excellent barbecue out of a gas station in Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, or North Carolina? Oh my, yes you are.
But here’s the truth: there are more bad barbecue restaurants in barbecue regions than there are good ones. Bad barbecue is everywhere. I would guess that the vast majority of the people making it simply think they’re good at it because they are from a certain place, or they’ve always made barbecue in their family.
When I lived in New York, it used to drive me nuts that people would invite me to a “barbecue” when they meant “cookout.” (Barbecue is smoked, indirect heat, low and slow—cookout is food grilled over charcoal briquettes or gas burners. To a Southerner, the two terms are not interchangeable.) When I was new to the City I was thrilled to find that there was this big restaurant with a giant neon sign that said Dallas BBQ, only to be letdown by the grilled chicken and fishbowl-size drinks I found inside. Certainly, once upon a time, no one understood what was what.
But then again, once upon a time, it was a widely-held belief that no one but the French could make Chardonnay.
Just remember what Kingsley Amis wrote: “Unquestioning devotion to authenticity is, in any department of life, a mark of the naive—or worse.”