Great barbecue exists in Brooklyn. I’m not alone in the opinion that Hometown Bar-B-Que is destination-worthy. Pig Beach’s sweet-glazed ribs are some of the best in their genre, and Izzy’s Smokehouse is an undeniably ground-breaking Kosher barbecue joint. But it doesn’t matter, at least not to Twitter. In the case of Brooklyn BBQ versus the world this past weekend, the only things that registered to a meme-wielding public were an unimpressive brisket photo and an intentionally misleading headline on a four year-old story.
“Why is Brooklyn Barbecue Taking Over the World?” was the headline tweeted from Munchies around lunchtime on Sunday. “It isn’t, and it never will,” seems to sum up the collective outcry of the 10,000 comments (so far) on the tweet. A North Carolina state senator issued a press release defending his state’s barbecue, Austin mayor Steve Adler tweeted, “We will never surrender,” and both the Washington Post and the Houston Chronicle published their own take-downs. Condemnation of Brooklyn barbecue’s supposed dominance was swift.
— MUNCHIES (@munchies) March 4, 2018
Nicholas Gill was packing for a trip to report on the foodways of Central America on Sunday when a 2014 story of his surfaced with a headline he didn’t write. Gill had all but forgotten it until Munchies posted the story with a new date. The instant backlash was just as surprising to him. Gill had received some comments, both positive and negative, when it was first published in 2014, and republished in 2015, but calls this new level of attention “fascinating.”
“Usually people are really supportive of what I write about,” Gill told me over the phone. He covers conservation and food in Central and South America for the New Worlder site he co-founded with Marie Elena Martinez in 2015. As for the wave of response about this piece, he said simply, “There’s something about barbecue.” He’s right, and that something is also what led him to barbecue joints in Panama, Colombia, and Spain during his travels. As a Brooklynite, he was surprised at how much of the aesthetic he encountered abroad was borrowed from Fette Sau. A few of the pitmasters even name-checked the joint, which opened in a Brooklyn garage space in 2007. Gill found it intriguing that a barbecue joint in Brooklyn had become influential in faraway places, and he reported on it. He wasn’t aiming for controversy, or even offering an opinion. The public, however, saw a headline and a less-than-convincing photo, and offered plenty of opinions of their own.
“I don’t know where that photo came from,” Joe Carroll, Fette Sau’s owner, told me in exasperation. His barbecue joint had unwittingly become the butt of a national joke based on a poor photo of his brisket. For four years, this positive story about the influence of his barbecue joint had sat quietly in the online catalog of Munchies, before it became a ruthless meme on a slow-news Sunday. Gill felt some guilt. “They’re getting dragged into it because of my silly photo,” he said. He shot the paltry serving of brisket on a mostly empty tray almost as an afterthought on his iPhone, probably a 5S back then, and sent it along with the photo he thought should lead the story. Gill’s preferred photo, included in the story, featured the subway tile behind the Fette Sau bar, and the signature beer-tap handles fashioned out of old knives and cleavers. It reeked of Brooklyn style, but not in a way that would enrage the barbecue mob.
Ok, the meme part was pretty funny, including the Brooklyn crawfish:
Why is the Brooklyn Crawfish Boil taking over the world? pic.twitter.com/UEgDaCL7Zk
— PearlRiverFlow (@PearlRiverFlow) March 5, 2018
The Brooklyn hot dog:
Why is Brooklyn barbecue taking over the world? pic.twitter.com/fm74eb1z3u
— Lance James Tedford (@LeBaronTurbo) March 5, 2018
And even Oklahoma sushi:
Why is Oklahoma sushi taking over the world? pic.twitter.com/dNKda3sEwd
— Bennett Berry (@bennettberry) March 5, 2018
Gill was even amused. He saw the back-and-forth of dedicated barbecue fans from Kansas City, the Carolinas, Memphis, and Texas arguing over who had the best barbecue. It made him laugh even more that his article never claimed that Brooklyn offered some superior form of barbecue. “I wasn’t trying to say that barbecue in Brooklyn is better than anywhere else,” he said. “Of course it’s not.” I thought he might be discouraged from writing about barbecue again. “I’m probably more interested now,” he said, having been exposed to the passion of barbecue fans.
Joe Carroll’s work was also being mocked, so it’s understandable why he didn’t find the humor in all of this. “It’s really quite bizarre,” Carroll said. It’s the first time he’d been on this side of a meme, and he didn’t really know if it was even worth responding. He was right to feel powerless, and probably disrespected too. Carroll is a barbecue author and a self-described “student of barbecue.” For Fette Sau, he drew inspiration from barbecue travels across the country, especially Central Texas, and not just from the food. Carroll felt a strong connection between the story of immigrant entrepreneurs building a barbecue tradition at places like Kreuz Market in Lockhart, and a different group of immigrant entrepreneurs who built the deli culture of New York.
The article in question addresses these issues obliquely, but maybe doesn’t echo Carroll’s sincere homage to the barbecue traditions that influenced Brooklyn and Fette Sau. As for Brooklyn’s influence around the world, Carroll said it’s real, but for pragmatic reasons. “If you’re coming into the U.S. from anywhere in the world, there’s a better chance you’re coming to New York than to Austin,” he said, hence Brooklyn’s greater influence. But that view is as dated as the article. With an admitted bias, I’ve seen the influence of Texas barbecue, specifically Austin’s barbecue, permeate most of the new smokehouses abroad. Then again, the world of barbecue looked very different four years ago.
I looked back at my barbecue-news roundups from around the time Gill’s article was first published on May 21, 2014. I’d included it the week after it was published, with the uncontroversial line: “Making the case for a uniquely Brooklyn style of barbecue.” To provide some historical context, the same week Smoke announced its expansion to a (now closed) location in Plano; Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott stopped at Hinze’s BBQ in Sealy; and Franklin Barbecue hadn’t yet built the smokehouse that burned down last year. Franklin’s book was still a year away from becoming the de facto barbecue bible for pitmasters looking to learn Texas barbecue abroad. It was a long time ago in barbecue years.
There’s a moment of foreshadowing in Gill’s article in the final paragraph, where he wrote, “I wonder what would happen if someone tried to imitate the inimitable Aaron Franklin in Buenos Aires, calling their brisket ‘Austin-style.'” Well, it might not be in Buenos Aires, but Franklin is now copied more often that probably any pitmaster. “Would there be outrage?” Gill asked, before really knowing what barbecue outrage could look like. Regardless, there would be no current-day outrage against the idea of Austin-style barbecue.
This moment says a lot about the rabid fan base of barbecue. We root so hard for our “team” that we can’t bother to read past the headline before firing off a takedown of the other side. The same crowd that mocked the tray of Brooklyn barbecue had joked about an article earlier this year where the artistry of a well-arranged barbecue tray was discussed. Senators and mayors noted their mock disappointment just to seem hip and relatable, and the media (including this post) pounced because barbecue is the subject. This wouldn’t happen with a plate of chicken fried steak.
Thankfully, Gill is taking it in stride. He’s rarely had so much media attention. Newscasters from Texas, Kansas, North Carolina, and the BBC have asked for interviews. BuzzFeed asked twice. “I wish my articles had this much controversy surrounding them when I write about important topics like oil contamination and cutting down rain forests,” Gill said with a laugh. A ten-part series on food in the Amazon rain forest that was published last year on New Worlder just won an IACP award, “but nobody cares about that,” Gill said. “They care about barbecue.”