In this article, I am defining barbecue as a traditional and uniquely American style of cooking — namely cuts of meat bathed in smoke and cooked over low temperatures for an extended period of time. This includes central Texas Brisket, Carolina pulled pork and the ribs of Kansas City. Those vital barbecue traditions were born during early American history and how they developed and evolved over the last few centuries.
For most of barbecue history, this method of cooking remained regionally distinctive but ever-changing. The barbecue of the founding fathers is not the barbecue of today. In fact, those methods and flavors might be lost to us today as their techniques were seldom recorded. Trusted recipes remained hidden in the memory of old pitmasters, leaving modern-day enthusiasts guessing.
Recently, we have witnessed the emergence of barbecue competitions. Many of them are small and local, but some consist of hundreds of teams, thousands of competitors, and tens of thousands of spectators. We might believe that all of this fanfare, particularly the largest events, would produce the best barbecue in the world.
Let’s talk about the big three competitions, Memphis in May, the American Royal, and the Jack Daniel’s Invitational. These competitions are for the best of the best. In the invitational category, competitors must prove themselves worthy to even walk through the door. To win these gold standard competitions, teams must produce the perfect barbecue and receive the highest possible scores from the judge’s table.
In competition barbecue, six portions are placed in styrofoam boxes and presented to six judges. Boxes are numbered and remain anonymous. Judges examine and taste each portion and score the submissions. A final tally then determines the winner.
There are those competitors who come away from a bad performance complaining about corrupt tables or stingy judges. And yet the same names are often called out when the winners are announced. If judging was arbitrary and there was such a thing as a bad table, then the best of the best wouldn’t keep winning again and again. (Unless, of course, these competitions are rigged, which I do not believe.)
Since only the best compete in the most prestigious competitions and there are consistent winners at this level, what they produce must be the perfect barbecue. Right? Isn’t that the goal? Of course, these repeated champions know what to do. Not only have they perfected their technical execution and nailed the right flavor profiles, but they know how to appeal to the judges.
At a barbecue competition, a judge could consume as much as two pounds of meat. Smoke and heat and complex flavors assail their taste buds. To win, you have to break through and appeal to the judge’s senses in a way that no one else can. Ultimately, what you turn in must be more “barbecue” than anyone else’s.
As barbecue approaches perfection, the breadth of possibility narrows. You can’t win by using a hint of Korean Gochugaru or a smidge of North African Berbere. Just like you won’t be able to bring Carolina-style tangy pork to a Texas event. While barbecue developed into various styles, these deviations will not end with a winning entry. The barbecue that takes the top prize reflects that narrow approach toward perfection.
The problem with perfection is that as barbecue reaches its pinnacle, its range of diversity reduces to a single point. While the definition of a perfect barbecue is the collaborated effort of judges and experts, it is also the least common denominator. It is what the majority says it is and therefore an average. Cynically, we can say that perfection, while achieving the heights of technical skill, is merely average in flavor.
There is no prize for uniqueness, inventiveness, or experimentation in barbecue. While some regions have societies and competitions to preserve their unique traditions, big money is mostly collected on the Kansas City circuit. Sanctioned by a single organization, KCBS wields the lion’s share of influence. That influence narrowly focuses on a tradition that leaves so much out of the picture.
Add to this the fact that competitors are among the most vocal influencers in barbecue. They have filled Youtube and the internet with their tips, tricks, and secrets. Want to know how to make a winning barbecue brisket? Search for it. You will find hundreds of answers. Now that narrowed perfection of barbecue sits in front of the eyes of backyard cooks around the world. Suddenly their ribs aren’t good enough. And the cycle grows.
I am not trying to criticize the competitors or the competition, but there must be a balance. Fall-of-the-bone ribs won’t win a competition, but if that is how you like them, then make them that way. Use all the spices in your cupboard. Experiment, innovate, and don’t let the judge’s table be the mark for which you aim. Let your tastebuds do that. The preservation of barbecue lies not in seeking its perfection, but in finding all of its traditions.
Barbecue, in this meaning, is uniquely American. Its origins are not as simple as most people believe. It required the vast space of North America and the cooking traditions of immigrants, forced or not, from Europe and West Africa. Add to this the methods of the indigenous people and ingredients gathered from around the world. Regions with limited communication used barbecue for gatherings and events. Each style developed based on the meats available, and the immigrants who lived in that area. The perfection of barbecue is its diversity. It is this that truly unifies the traditions, methods, recipes, and most importantly, its stories.
How to Save Barbecue
So, is there a solution? I’m not suggesting we end competition barbecue. However, placing more emphasis on regional traditions and their unique flavor profiles would help. This means teaching barbecue judges not just the formula for the perfect barbecue, but to respect variety. Carolina barbecue is tangy and acidic in flavor. With our current preoccupation with sugar-coated ribs, we need judges whose palates can differentiate and reasonably determine the best entries regardless of regional characteristics.
Additionally, the perfect barbecue isn’t what current media trends determine. There is so much more to this style of cooking that isn’t explored. This lack of inclusion is especially damaging when we believe that perfection lies with a competition-winning entry. Allowing innovation is vital to the preservation of barbecue. After all, it is a fusion culinary tradition. Its influences come from around the world, and that needs to continue.
Be open-minded. It might not have the flavor profile of a barbecue potato chip, but that is a good thing. Barbecue is a tradition and a method before it is a flavor. If we can all be open to the diversity and innovation of barbecue, it will continue to grow and develop. This is the key to its preservation. The long-term survival of this tradition does not come by handing out more trophies. It will be in the experiments of those who choose to improve upon this tradition.