Barbecue’s reputation in the culinary world has turned a corner. Last week the nominations for the New York based James Beard Foundation’s annual awards were announced, and a pitmaster was among the names that were otherwise a roll call of haute cuisine. Under the heading “Best Chef: Southwest” was the name Aaron Franklin—of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas—who became the first barbecue-centric proprietor nominated as a chef.
The James Beard Foundation has honored barbecue before. Louie Mueller Barbecue was recognized in the America’s Classics category*, which was added in 1998 as a way to recognize an “informal and moderately priced” restaurant “with timeless appeal, beloved in its region for quality food that reflects the character of its community.” It’s a huge honor to be recognized by the foundation in any category, but if the James Beard awards are the Oscars of the restaurant industry, getting an America’s Classics award is like a lifetime achievement award. Aaron Franklin was basically nominated as best actor, which is why this recognition is so groundbreaking. In fact, when he heard about the nomination he said, “I wondered if they made a mistake,” then checked the website again to be sure.
Barbecue is no longer viewed as backwoods sustenance served from rickety shacks or a provincial convenience food for hungry folks on the go. Barbecue is now both cool and coveted. A decent barbecue option is considered de rigueur for any major city in America, and not just in the South. Words like “humble” and “charming” (and, a bit more derogatory, “unsophisticated”) are no longer part of the critics’ lexicon when crafting prose about smoked meats (these words now seem to be used by the gringos on the taco beat). As Michael Pollan noted in his 2013 novel, Cooked, “For a sleepy vernacular cooking tradition, barbecue has woken up and become notably self-aware.” Samuel Jones of Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, used his own sleepy vernacular in a 2014 film for Vice’s YouTube food channel, Munchies to articulate a similar sentiment: “Right now, barbecue is trendy. Barbecue is cool. There was a time that barbecue wasn’t cool. It was in the armpit of the culinary world.”
Serious discussion about barbecue’s importance isn’t new. The Southern Foodways Alliance holds an annual themed symposium, and more than a decade ago, in 2002 it was Barbecue: Smoke, Sauce, and History. It included thoughts from barbecue historians (a title that even Pollan noted sarcastically in Cooked, although a quarter of the book was dedicated to the subject of barbecue) like Bob Garner, Robb Walsh, and John Shelton Reed. According to the SFA’s own description of the event, “pitmasters from across the South took center stage with a feast of whole hog, pork shoulder, pork ribs, and barbecue chicken.” Barbecue was both a backdrop and the star. During Reed’s session, “Barbecue Sociology: The Meat of the Matter,” he gave a speech (which was later put into print in Cornbread Nation 2) lamenting how hard it was to find barbecue in cities like Atlanta. “It’s almost as if downtown Atlanta is ashamed of barbecue – finds it too country, too low-rent.” It was far from celebrated.
Andrew Warnes wondered in his book Savage Barbecue (2008) if barbecue itself welcomed notoriety from the “custodians of U.S. cuisine.” He surmised that the aesthetics of a barbecue meal act as a smokescreen against outside adulation:
The great time and effort demanded by this food seem to be betrayed by its unforgivable appearance among ketchup and soda, plastic cutlery and tabletops, and other paraphernalia alien to their [referring to the ‘custodians’] idea of culinary excellence. . . . Never is it conceded that pit barbecue . . . is wallowing in grease, reveling in plastic, and generally holding the conventions of Western civilization in a steadfast and almost punk-like contempt.
To Warnes, barbecue was circa late eighties Green Day when they formed as a punk band. Today, it has morphed into 2005 Green Day that saw the very non-punk American Idiot nominated for best album. Despite the comparison, I doubt Franklin Barbecue will offer a tasting menu or smoked foie gras anytime soon. They’ll more likely heed Warnes warning that “tablecloths are kryptonite.”
In 1990, North Carolina author Clyde Edgerton wrote and performed a song called “Quiche Woman in a Barbeque Town” which does double duty at making fun of a New Yorker who moved to the south and of the town where she landed. Here’s the chorus:
She’s a quiche woman in a barbeque town
There’s trucks and ticks and tobacco all around
She was Vassar cum laude several years ago
The adjustment…will be slow.
Trucks, ticks, and tobacco (along with a segregated public pool in the second chorus) were what defined a generic barbecue town to the writer, and many others at the time. Now, barbecue is the toast of cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York. Franklin Barbecue is a tourist attraction rather than a dirty secret, and it’s so well respected among food critics nationally that it was named as one of thirty-eight essential restaurants in the country by Eater critic Bill Addison.
Quiche Woman in a Barbeque Town
Barbecue is also pretty big in Houston, which shouldn’t be too big of a surprise. After Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland, just south of the city, opened in 2014, the restaurant critic for the Houston Chronicle, Alison Cook, named it the third best restaurant – of any type – in the city. Alan Richman of GQ magazine followed suit by naming Killen’s one of his “Most Oustanding Restaurants” in the country, calling their beef short rib “the Mona Lisa of meat.” Last year he heaped similar praise on Austin’s la Barbecue recommending the reader “Get a slice on the fatty side and you’ll be asking yourself if this might be the greatest beef you ever ate,” not just the greatest barbecue. He ended his Killen’s review with an outsider’s observations on Texas barbecue. “I used to worry that Texas barbecue was in decline, the great old masters long gone, but it’s suddenly better than ever. The new guys are behaving like chefs, sourcing better products and doing more than just sitting folding chairs by the smoker all day, drinking beer,” and getting nominated for James Beard awards.
Robert Moss, Barbecue Editor at Southern Living was less than enthused about the recent James Beard Foundation nominations. He wrote last week “something about it leaves me scratching my head.” Moss isn’t comfortable with term “chef” being applied to pitmasters, although he admits that Franklin meets the requirements for the award (“Chefs who have set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions”). Franklin questioned his place amongst the country’s elite chefs as well, telling me “A chef has a certain amount of skills that I don’t possess.” Adding “I think cook is more accurate than chef” to describe his skills.
In his column, Moss went from puzzled to cautionary “I do hope this kind of attention doesn’t go to too many pitmasters’ heads.” It’s hard to imagine that this recent adulation has gone to the head of Aaron Franklin any more than the praise already heaped upon his restaurant over the past six years. While he is appreciative of the recognition – “It’s one of the most exciting things that have ever happened to me.” – he also remains humble. “There’s no real chance that I’ll actually win it.”
Word from diners at Franklin Barbecue have confirmed that Franklin hasn’t yet gone to donning a chef’s toque while manning the counter. When I asked him what he was doing when he heard the news of his historic nomination, he replied matter-of-factly “I was welding out in Bastrop. I’m working on a sausage cooker.” I’d bet none of the other chefs not the list could say the same. It seems they’re a long way off from considering tablecloths at Franklin Barbecue, and the preferred cutlery will always be your hands.
*Barbecue restaurants that have been recognized as America’s Classics:
1999 Doumar’s Cones and BBQ in Norfolk, Virginia
2000 The Original Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse in Dallas, Texas
2003 The Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina and Lexington #1 in Lexington, North Carolina
2006 Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas
2012 Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, Arkansas
2014 Perini Ranch in Abilene, Texas