The Politics of Barbecue
Bones of Contention & Invention
Ardie Davis aka Remus Powers
BBQ Hall of Famer
Photos by A. Davis
In America, almost everything becomes a competi-tion—even something as subjective and unquantifiable as smoking a piece of meat. -Jim Auchmutey, Smokelore – A Short History Of Barbecue In America (2019)
“My ribs are so good they’ll make your breath come hard.”
“You put one of my ribs on the back of your neck, and your tongue will beat you to death trying to get to it!” -Competition ribs cooks’ bravado overheard in Tom Lee Park, 1991, at the Memphis in May World Cham-pion Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Here’s what I mean by “politics:”
Politics involves contending for power or other tangible/in-tangible rewards between individuals or groups, organized or not. Contention may be planned and exercised in accordance with established rules, or spontaneous, in conform-ity—or not—with social norms.
Barbecuers were the original politicians and philosophers. Our earliest ancestral barbecuers loved sitting around a campfire outside their cave dwellings, grasping bones and chewing on the live fire-charred meat of the day, debating weighty matters such as the meaning of life, as well as matters of more immediate concern, like tomorrow’s hunt. Thus we got the expression, “I have a bone to pick with you.” Or so it is fun to imagine.
Everybody knows that barbecue is no stranger to politics. What comes to mind first is the tradition of politicians’ attracting prospective voters to a rally, speeches and entertainment with free barbecue. It is not a sure-fire means of winning elected office.
My focus here is a glimpse of some bones of contention in our world of barbecue, as seen in contests, organizations, restaurants, products and rivalries between regions and cities—ending with some thoughts on the politics of the future of barbecue.
Jim Auchmutey’s truth hasn’t stopped barbecue cooks worldwide from competing in smoked meat contests, putting their fate in the hands, eyes, nose and palates of judges who do their best to harness their subjective likes and dislikes in conformance with contest rules, procedures and scoring protocol. Although numbers are most often used to record judges’ evaluation of entries, the numbers represent subjective judgments, not scientific measurements.
Objective barbecue judging standards include conformity to contest rules that, if violated, will disqualify an entry. Meat that tastes like lighter fluid or meat that is burned to a crisp or undercooked will be universally downgraded by judges.
Winning barbecue cooking contests has become a launching pad for full or part-time careers as cooking instructors, new products, new restaurants, product endorsements, cookbooks, and celebrity branding via TV shows, magazines, newspapers and social media.
John “Daredevil Bad McFad” Raven, PhB/Commissioner of Barbecue, contended, with tongue in cheek, “I know more about barbecue than anybody.” Rumor has it that some barbecue contestants actually believe that they know more about barbecue than anybody. The best cooks I know will tell you that the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. There is always more to learn! And lucky for us, most great pitmasters are willing to share their knowledge.
Successful barbecue contests require competent, experienced, paid and volunteer staff to cover thousands of essential details such as processing team and judge applications, assigning team spaces, marking team spaces, arranging for power outlets, water, hay and ice, porta-potties, golf carts, PA systems, ribbons, trophies, sponsors, food and product vendors, Health Department compliance, compliance with local, county and state ordinances, security, liability insurance, inclement weather, bomb or terror-ist threats public safety plans, and entertainment, to name a few. To the credit of many past and present barbecue organization leaders, several major and minor barbecue con-test sanctioning organizations emerged during the final decades of the 20th century to establish uniform rules and procedures for barbecue cooking contests sanctioned by their organizations. Rules and procedures are continuously reviewed and occasionally revised. Rules changes aren’t taken lightly. If you’ve ever been involved in rules change discussions, you have been baptized in the politics of barbecue.
Barbecue purists never assume that when a restaurant sign or a menu item in a restaurant says “barbecue,” you can count on getting real barbecue on the premises. My guess is that 99.99% of National Barbecue News readers can taste the difference between wood-fired and smoked barbecue meat and meat that has been oven roasted or crock roasted and mopped, sopped or infused with barbecue sauce. Dr. Rich Davis called it “barbesauce.” That’s not to say that it’s bad, it just isn’t real barbecue, and there aren’t any barbecue police to enforce truth in labeling. I hope it never comes to that!
As for the contention that if your barbecue is so good, why haven’t you won any contests: a successful Kansas City pit-master/restauranteur told me that he has no need for or time to compete in barbecue cooking contests. “When that door opens for business, if customers come flocking in, I’m winning. I compete for customers every day!” I’ll attest that he does a darned good job of it.
Consumers may think that barbecue products are apolitical. What’s political about a barbecue grill, a dry rub, wet sauce or hi-tech thermometer?
Step into the barbecue products industry as a wannabe contender and you’ll soon find out that producing, marketing and selling your fantastic barbecue product is not as simple as creating it and selling it, regardless of its quality. Compliance with umpteen municipal, state and federal regulations will be your lot, as well as dealing with suppliers, manufacturers, brokers, and sales outlets to get your product in the eyes and hands of consumers.
Branding and producing cookers, sauces, rubs, gadgets and other barbecue-related products requires a big investment of capital, a product that delivers what the consumer wants, and creative marketing savvy. Although the competition is intense, friendships in the industry network are more the rule than the exception. Don’t be surprised if some of your struggles involve politics and politicians.
Ask Donny Teel where to find the best barbecue, and if he’s not too busy smoking and selling his outstanding barbecue from his Buffalo’s BBQ food truck in Sperry, Oklahoma, he might suggest that you imagine a big barbecue sandwich. Texas is the bottom slice of the sandwich. Kansas City is the top slice, “and all the good stuff is in between.” That would be Oklahoma.
Several regions, states or cities contend for recognition as America’s “Barbecue Capital.” Memphis TN, Metro Kansas City, Ayden NC, Owensboro KY, Lexing-ton NC, Lockhart TX, Austin TX, Charleston SC, Louisville KY and Tulsa OK are among the contenders. Some adhere to the hogma of the pig; some are all about mutton, and some do it all: pork, beef, poultry, lamb, mutton, goat and more.
The issue will never be resolved to the satisfaction of all, even as an act of Congress. Does it really matter? Why deprive yourself of barbecue excellence wherever you find it?
The biggest bone of contention we have to pick as we sit around the barbecue campfire today is: What the heck is happening with our worldwide climate!? Is our passion for true smoked meat barbecue a major or minor player? Will vegans rule the future? Will we be vegans? I am following, along with you, the Alt Meat momentum. It’s a biggie and it demands that we pay attention, do our homework and get involved.
Barbecue politics may be greasy, but not sleazy. Yes, big egos, striving to be the best, pursuing hoop dreams of making it big—that and more is in the mix, but compared to the daily onslaught of mainstream breaking political news, barbecue politics are more like the ubiquitous cornhole games you see at barbecue contests.
When the beer is cold and the pig is hot, barbecue camaraderie can’t be beat. No fighting; just banter, great food, great beverages, laughter and fun!