In March 2018, Vice Media’s Munchies tweeted a sad photo. Taken at Fette Sau in Brooklyn, the image showed a few paltry slices of brisket alongside pickles, a jar of amber beer, and some deflated-looking rolls. The tweet asked an evocative question: “Why is Brooklyn barbecue taking over the world?” The cries of outrage were heard in Texas and beyond.
According to Ben Lashes, who is considered to be “the world’s first meme manager,” an NFT is a way to “track and authenticate” a piece of digital content. Lashes is the founder of management company A Weird Movie; think of him like a sports agent, but the stars he represents are the creators of bits of viral digital content, like Grumpy Cat, Nyan Cat, and Success Kid. He helps meme generators and digital artists find ways to monetize their viral content, including selling it as NFTs. In April, Lashes managed the auction of “Disaster Girl,” which sold for the cryptocurrency equivalent of half a million dollars on the digital auction site Foundation. On August 5, on the same site, an auction will begin for the lot known as “Brooklyn BBQ.”
The highest bidder will own the original image, in all its depressing glory, even as the meme continues to disseminate online. Lashes compares owning an NFT to owning an original Andy Warhol painting. It’s the only one that exists, but it doesn’t mean you can put the artwork on a T-shirt and start selling it. (Though some NFT sales do include copyright, this one will not.) “It’s like you’re getting the official signed version of the art for your own personal collection,” he says.
When the Munchies tweet went viral and became a meme, in 2018, Gill’s article was already four years old. The essay didn’t make the claim of the salacious headline. It was about the rise of a particular urban and earnestly hip barbecue-joint aesthetic. The piece of writing Gill is best known for is famous precisely because people didn’t read it, a fact he can now laugh about. “[The meme] is way bigger than anything I wrote in the actual story,” he says.
Last week, I asked what it was like to revisit the uncomfortable day when his work was universally reviled by everyone from barbecue fans to the mayor of Austin. “The thing is, it never really went away,” he says. The death threats and invitations to fight have ceased, but he still receives an angry message about the tweet once every couple of months. “I think people expect me to be embarrassed about it,” he says. “I’m not.” Now, Gill is looking to capitalize on the ridicule he endured.
That meager tray of Brooklyn barbecue would rack up some confused comments on my Instagram, but according to Lashes, that’s exactly what makes it noteworthy. “The controversy is part of what makes it art,” he says, comparing it artist Maurizio Cattelan’s much-maligned banana taped to a wall. For Lashes, memes and viral phenomena are “the pop art of the modern era.”
Aspiring digital collectors can start bidding on “Brooklyn BBQ” on August 5, as long as they have the cryptocurrency to do so. The auction site only accepts Ethereum for payment. The starting bid is set at five Ether—as of Thursday, a value of about $10,000. Once the first offer comes in, a 24-hour clock will begin for open bidding.
“It all sounds ridiculous, but I have a good feeling about this,” Gill says. Still, he feels more at home promoting the two new cookbooks he’ll publish later this year. The controversy around the image hasn’t affected his writing career, but he remains fascinated by how uncomfortable it made barbecue fans feel. “People felt threatened by this image,” he says. It’s odd for an article on food trends from 2014 to remain a discussion point, but to Gill, the NFT sale is a way of finalizing some unfinished business. “I lost control of the narrative, and this is me taking it back.”