True ‘Cue Kerfuffle
Sticks and logs will cook thy hogs, and gas will never taint thee
Thanks to Calvin Trillin, barbecue is once again in the national spotlight. In his recent New Yorker article “In Defense of True ‘Cue,” Trillin highlighted True ‘Cue, an organization that campaigns for what they designate as “Real Barbecue,” while decrying what it refers to as “Faux ‘Cue,” meat sold as barbecue that isn’t cooked with wood. The use of those terms to define barbecue–true vs. faux–has put some in the barbecue world on the defensive.
Carey Bringle of Peg Leg Porker in Nashville struck back via a Facebook post. He cooks ribs, pork shoulders, and chicken (all of which I like very much) at his restaurant on an Ole Hickory rotisserie smoker. It’s a smoker with gas-assist, but wood is the primary fuel. Bringle’s barbecue uses modern technology, but he’s unhappy with the suggestion that his barbecue is any less real than someone using a stick burner. He explained his frustrations to me, saying, “Critique my food all you want. It’s about the end product. Just don’t tell me how to get there.” Bringle also bristled that the True ‘Cue folks want to create a black-and-white definition of real barbecue, telling them, “if you didn’t invent fire, you don’t own barbecue.”
I called John Shelton Reed, one of the founders of True ‘Cue, to congratulate him on his organization’s recent popularity (I am listed as a patron, with my permission, on the True ‘Cue website), and to get his reaction to Bringle’s comments. “I think if he read what we said about real barbecue on our website he wouldn’t come to the conclusion that we’re disrespecting him,” Reed told me. He doesn’t consider Bringle’s rotisserie-cooked barbecue to be a faux version of the craft, but he also wasn’t sure if a joint that cooks solely on gas-assist rotisseries could get the True ‘Cue certification. It exists in a sort of gray area, that True ‘Cue loosely describes as crossing “the line between True ‘Cue and faux ‘cue.” It’s the type of middle ground that doesn’t exist so much in True ‘Cue’s home state.
True ‘Cue was born in North Carolina where whole hogs and pork shoulders are cooked over wood coals or they’re not. Those barbecue joints that forgo the wood prepare the meat in ovens fueled only by gas burners or electric heating elements. “Oven-cooked” isn’t an unfairly loaded adjective; it is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They don’t really deal with hybrid cookers in the Carolinas. Gas whole-hog cookers don’t use a single stick of wood to cook the meat. The flavor comes from the pork and the sauce, not wood. This made it easy to identify “real barbecue” from those cooking in ovens.
Southern Prides and Ole Hickory smokers are in a different category. Say what you want about gas-fired rotisseries, but they still rely on wood for the majority of the cook time–and, most imperatively, for flavor. Many in the industry, like Cattelack Barbecue in Dallas, turn off the gas entirely in their Ole Hickory smokers once the wood fire is lit. That means there is a significant gray area that True ‘Cue is going to need to address before they can be taken seriously outside of their friendly Carolina confines where methods are much more stridently black-and-white.
This isn’t the only challenge True ‘Cue will face; certifications will likely be done based on the word of the pitmaster that wood is their primary fuel. Aware of this issue, Reed assured me that “if folks cheat to win our love, they’ll roast in hell for it.”
As for Bringle, once he calmed down, the germ of his argument seems to be about semantics. Rather than calling barbecue either true or faux, he suggests changing the name to something less inflammatory like “Certified Wood-Only Cooked.” He sees no need for a barbecue judge and jury.
Bringle was also defiant, saying “We don’t need you as our savior.” That was a shot at writers who don’t run barbecue joints, and it’s a claim that no doubt applies to the popular Peg Leg Porker restaurant. True, it doesn’t need any help.
But there are plenty of American barbecue traditions that do. I’ve written about how the Hill Country-style of barbecue that could use a boost. Bringle’s friend and fellow Nashville barbecue joint owner Pat Martin of Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint knows of one too: whole hog cooking in West Tennessee. Martin keeps this method alive in all three of his restaurants, where whole hogs are cooked over wood coals. He does this as an homage to his barbecue roots in West Tennessee where the art of wood-cooked whole hog is dying off. You might call Martin’s very visible whole hog technique (the pits are basically in the middle of his restaurant dining rooms) an awareness campaign for West Tennessee whole hog, which is very much in need of a savior.
With eyes on expansion outside of hog country, True ‘Cue has some work to do to clarify its mission. Co-founder Dan Levine told Trillin in his article, “We’re not fanatics. We just think there’s one right way to do things. Otherwise, it’s just oven-roasted pork.” That sounds a whole lot like they want to define what barbecue isn’t, which is a dangerous position for some, ahem, hogmatic North Carolinians to bring into Texas. I’ve often said that if we listened to everyone’s personal opinion about what is not barbecue, we’d be left with no barbecue.
My hope is that True ‘Cue maintains a focus on its work advocating for hardworking pitmasters in need of recognition and for consumers looking for an authentic meal. As a once and future tourist through the Carolinas and whole hog barbecue country, I applaud the organization’s work to raise awareness of the region’s signature barbecue cuisine, and to help revitalize it. I could’ve used True Cue’s guidance when I wasted a few stops during a past Carolina trips eating oven-roasted pork with vinegar sauce that was called barbecue, but steering any barbecue lover away from the rotisserie-smoked ribs at Peg Leg Porker is a step in the wrong direction. I hope that True ‘Cue broadens its definition to account for nuance, shades of gray, and various permutations of a given region’s cooking styles. That way we’ll all have more “true” barbecue to choose from, however you define it.
FWIW I’m 100% in agreement with Bringle. I don’t care if someone cooks good Q with a flashlight as long as the product looks and tastes like Q, it suits the hell out of me.
The idea that some group of supposed Q saviors want to define “true ” barbecue truly grates on me. Let the market decide. If it tastes great it will likely succeed, if not, probably not. True ‘Cur indeed.
Nice job on this post, Daniel. As a history buff, I appreciate what True Cue is all about. From a dining perspective, I’ve had some pretty amazing food at places using gas assist cookers.
Barbecue itself is nuanced. To create an organization whose purpose is to determine what is real barbecue verses what is faux barbecue seems pretty silly.
People have been arguing about what is “real” barbecue and what is “fake” barbecue for ages, but once you shy away from the friendly back and forth and create an organization whose purpose is to pigeonhole barbecue into something that they alone believe it to be, then I think you have crossed over into the misguided and foolhardy. The beauty of barbecue is its variability. It differs from region to region and each area offers something positive to the discussion. To define barbecue in the manner that True ‘Cue intends is to place limits on it.
And why do they believe they have the right to place such limitations? How does some after school club come to believe that they are sole purveyors of truth when it comes to determine what is real barbecue and what is faux? Someone could just as easily create their own organization on defining real barbecue and conclude that real barbecue comes only and exclusively from rotisserie or gas powered smokers. And the truth is that there is absolutely nothing that prevents someone from doing just that.
I guess the concern is that some small barbecue joint somewhere will believe that by getting the True ‘Cue seal of approval, they may someone be able to get a few more customers through their door. Thus, giving some credibility to an organization that has none. As of now, it just seems like a group of people who go around pointing fingers at hardworking people and telling them their not making real barbecue. Seems pretty arrogant to me. I’m all for rating what barbecue you like better than others, that’s how we know the good places from the bad ones. But it’s an entirely different thing when you designate some places as “real” barbecue and others as “faux”.
I think Daniel hit the nail on the head and provided some much needed perspective at the end of the article when he said he hopes that “True ‘Cue maintains a focus on its work advocating for hardworking pitmasters in need of recognition and for consumers looking for an authentic meal”. Here’s to hoping they do just that.
the age old question again,lol,I have stirred my share of bbq controversy lately myself.due to such revolvement of bbq,I feel as if its not wood fired all niter its not Q,but oh well that’s just me in todays bbq world modern cookers have been developed with help of gas and or electronics that that give us the end result Bbqhitting all marks for the most part. its just really hard to teach a old dog new tricks is where I end up everytime but do now except this new generation of cooks and cookers but don’t like them still the same,Bbq has always been an art to me,a way of life where many have jumped on board due to its popularity from comps in turn more bbq rest. popping up all over ,and yes they all are cooking it somehow diff but its all BBQ…..bbqdave
Y’all need to read what we’ve said about this matter at TrueCue.org — for instance, “Cooking the old-school way, entirely with wood, is still the preferred method for those like competition barbecuers who have the time and resources for it. But technology marches on. In towns and cities from coast to coast barbecue is now being prepared with something like Ole Hickory™ or Southern Pride™ cookers, hybrid devices that use wood for smoke but supplement it with some degree of heat from gas or electricity. At its best this process can produce barbecue on par with the entirely wood-cooked variety, and does so more consistently with less oversight. It is also easier and cheaper, so it’s no surprise that most new barbecue restaurants these days take this course, some of them with excellent results.”
Daniel is absolutely right that Levine and I (and Trillin, in that article) are primarily concerned with North Carolina, where some of the biggest and best-known “barbecue” establishments use no wood at all. If some of these gassers switched over to Ole Hickory or Southern Pride, we’d be delighted.
Levine and I don’t know (or care) enough about barbecue elsewhere to mess with certifying it or not, but we’re hoping to enlist state or regional associates who do. We currently have some in South Carolina and Kentucky, and we had one for Mississippi until his untimely death. These folks will have a better idea than we do about the barbecue traditions of other places. We’ve got our hands full with three different traditions in North Carolina.
I look at the self appointed BBQ & food surveyors much like I do when I read any restaurant review or even a movie review… I put little if any credence in depending on what someone I don’t know tell me if I should stay away or come runnin’ based on their taste buds or their idiosyncrasies or star rating scale or whatever. Instead I read more in between the lines to get a whiff of if I might like it…or if it’s a movie I want to see, etc. I just want BBQ in front if me that I pd for to taste like BBQ I like or chili(whole nuther conversation) or a steak or Cf steak or whatever. I’ve been short on wood b4 and had no problem making well to do with dual fuels to get the job done and could tell nil to no difference from previous preparations.