Robert Sietsema, the Village Voice‘s food critic, is a cheerleader. Back in January he, along with nearly every other New York food writer, wrote a piece rah-rah’ing the New York barbecue scene. Maybe penning a promotional article about local barbecue is required for admission to the New York BBQ Society (we don’t know if that exists, but can’t we gleefully pretend that there is some barbecue cooperative up north called N.Y.B.S.?).
In his article Sietsema attempts to make the case that over the last couple of decades, New York somehow achieved a reputable barbecue scene by osmosis. He went so far as to write, “Now the city must be accounted one of the country’s ‘cue capitals.” He then ducked, looked to either side, braced for fisticuffs, but it was too feeble a claim to be taken seriously and was soon dismissed. A commenter on the article summed up the reaction best: “. . .pit masters and BBQ devotees across Texas, North Carolina, Kansas City & Memphis all roll their eyes in unison.”
Sietsema had already stuck a pin in his fragile balloon of an argument by hitching his New York barbecue wagon to a hairdresser-cum-pit tender who opened a restaurant 21 years ago (that is no longer in business) and a trio of barbecue establishments that have been open for nine months combined. Looks like the flag marking the new capital needs to be planted in firmer ground.
When his bravado failed to elicit much response, Sietsema upped the ante. Six weeks later he wrote an article entitled, “Laugh if You Like, Texas, but New York is Now a BBQ Capital.” As you wish. It’s been a week, and we’re still laughing. Imagining the red-faced defiance of a fist-pounding toddler, I still chuckle when I read “we bow to no one.” I’d like to think that all of the imitators would have the decency to bow to Austin’s Aaron Franklin, who is quoted in the story as saying that expanding to New York would be “way too much trouble . . . You’ve got to import the wood, and do things on such a big scale.” Folks, here in Texas we call that modesty. These words come from a man who regularly blows the minds of every single person who waits up to three hours outside of Franklin Barbecue, his temple of brisket. Now that’s barbecue on a big scale.
Just as Sietsema has worshiped in the barbecue cathedrals of Texas, I have traveled to New York to give the five boroughs and their smoked meat cultures a fair shake. After a dozen and a half stops in three days, I found some New York barbecue worth celebrating, as well as some to avoid, but the most memorable smoked meat was the pastrami (not a surprise given the region’s fame for the dish). But overall it didn’t compare to the ‘cue culture of Texas, or the South in general. Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe seemed to agree with me, leaving the following pointed comment in the article: “You just can’t rewrite history and the groundwork of real American BBQ was written long ago in Carolina, Texas, Memphis, KC and many other places throughout the South … To me it looks like the publicists have won again.”
Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but I suggest those up north look to their own history of curing and smoking pastrami as something to build on rather than commandeering our traditions and trying to usurp our hard-earned and well-deserved seat at the barbecue scene’s picnic table. I consumed some really good pastrami, but when I returned to Texas, I had a renewed respect for the quality of smoked meats available here.
At times Sietsema’s argument verges toward a serious challenge, but there he sprinkles in enough knee-slappers to bring it back to satire, like his plea for more Barolo (how many of you had to Google that?) to accompany his ‘cue. And just when I thought the jokes would dry up in his piece, Sietsema delivers the real punchline near the conclusion. “Everything’s bigger in New York.” Playful with a side of chutzpah. I can appreciate that. But be warned that you’d better bring more than char siu pork and beer-can chicken to a barbecue because you don’t mess with Texas brisket.