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In Praise of “Old” Barbecue

Why Josh Ozersky's ode to new-fangled barbecue misses the point

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Traditional barbecue is having a moment, not just in Texas but around the country. So it’s natural to wonder when the backlash might come. Though it may be overdoing it to call Josh Ozersky’s story in the Wall Street Journal, “The New Barbecue,” a call to arms, he does do a strenuous job of dismissing traditional pit-smoked meats and lavishing praise upon cooks who are “shaking up” the established ways. Leave it to a New Yorker to be the first to essentially declare that they’re “so over” traditional pit-smoked meats. His story, from last weekend’s WSJ, begins:

A specter is haunting the barbecue world: the specter of stale smoke. Don’t get me wrong—barbecue is our great American food, a high art attained through years of patient training by men as single-minded as samurai. But it has also become stagnant and so dogmatic that many pit masters haven’t changed their recipes or routines in decades. Some shaking up is in order. And, at long last, it’s happening. The New ‘Cue is here.

It’s definitely worth reading the whole piece, if only for a glimpse of how food criticism that’s obsessed with the new reacts to one of the most old and venerable foods in the country. Let’s start by examining a few of the innovations Ozersky champions. He notes that Hi-Lo BBQ in San Francisco has found a way to use leftover smoked brisket (they add it to pho), that Mighty Quinn’s in New York is using heritage breed hogs, and that at Smoke in Dallas, Tim Byres uses ground coffee in his rub. I hate to pick on Byres, who has an incredible menu with a more than worthy smoked beef rib and three homemade sausages that I adore, but calling his coffee-rubbed brisket “one of the restaurant’s most celebrated offerings” is just false. The brisket is respectable. As for innovation, I doubt that Byres himself would say his coffee rub reinvents anything about barbecue.

The most innovative pitmasters, in Ozersky’s opinion, are Tim Rattray of The Granary ‘Cue and Brew in San Antonio (which is on our list of the state’s fifty best joints) and Andy Husbands of Tremont 647 in Boston. They’re both pushing the boundaries of barbecue preparations—the former does a pastrami beef rib while the latter serves “smoke-vide” beef ribs—and accompaniments like quinoa and pickled celery. (Rattray also serves traditional barbecue.) These are innovations that have a place in the non-barbecue world, but it’s obvious that both Rattray and Husbands have more respect for the foundation on which they’ve built their innovative menus. If only Ozersky had the same respect.

Ozersky states that “There are a million places to get brisket, and 95% of it tastes exactly the same.” I would tend to agree, but let’s focus on the 5 percent, those unusually good joints that show up on our list of the top fifty. I’ll take “stagnant” barbecue from joints like Franklin Barbecue, Louie Mueller Barbecue, Snow’s BBQ, and Pecan Lodge any day of the week. As for the 95 percent, it would be easier to take some subpar brisket and hide its shortcomings by layering on other flavors, sauces, or rubs or distractions like smoked risotto, but we’d all be a lot better off if those joints just made better barbecue.

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  • Matthew Vincent

    Amen and thank you. I wish I could just eat the smoke sometimes.

  • Joshua Ozersky

    I wish you could be a little more collegial about this, honestly. Is it really necessary to deride me in this way? This isn’t fun or productive. OK, I’ve said what I have to say.

    all due respect,

    Josh Ozersky

    • Daniel Vaughn

      Josh – This piece wasn’t about ridicule. It was a defense of pitmasters producing “stale”, “stagnant” and “dogmatic” barbecue.

  • Jason Cohen

    Classic use of “all due respect.”

  • Cort McMurray

    Anyone who has ever attempted to smoke a brisket understands the maddening difficulty of the task. These men and women aren’t just making food: they are preserving an art form.

    The “it all tastes the same” objection is specious. When you taste really good barbecue, you understand why God demanded the Israelites provide him an offering of smoked meats. You gotta respect a Diety who appreciates a nice brisket.

    (And Josh, disagreement ain’t derision, especially when you’re wrong, wrong, wrong!)

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  • Meathead

    This is all about aesthetics. Art has always prized innovation or all paintings would look like Rembrandts. On the other hand, to be a great artist you must first master the craft. Early Picasso showed a master of drawing and realism. It is important to have great craftsmen in Texas carrying the torch of their ancestors, fine tuning, tweaking the tried and true and being true to tradition. It is also important to have chef/artists in NY getting creative and elevating the craft to an art. I’ll eat them both gladly and would regret it if one or the other faded away. You two are among the culinary world’s great writers and critics. Kiss and make up. But if you prefer to go for the throat, I’ll gladly watch! It is a debate worth having.

  • Peter Taylor

    To paraphrase Ozersky, was it really necessary to deride America’s great barbecue cooks — the keepers of the flame — this way?
    I read in Wikipedia: “Although read primarily as a food writer, [Ozersky] has said in numerous public appearances that he disliked ‘food writing’ as such, and that his strongest influences have been G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Babington Macaulay, and A.J. Liebling.”
    Call me uncollegial, but I have to say that the man lacks humility as well as taste.

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