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By Lolis Eric Elie

Barbecue, it seems, repeats itself. Not as tragedy and farce, to use Karl Marx’s historic analysis. Rather, first as caricature, then as fetish. Clearly, we are in a fetish phase now.

Barbecue enjoyed its mythical Eden sometime between the nation’s colonial days and the middle of the last century when outside agitators or chain restaurants or commercial barbecue sauces or whomever you choose to blame ruined the smoked meat of our dreams. Southerners had been minding their own culinary business for decades when in the 1940s and 1950s the New York magazine writers suddenly discovered this curious phenomenon of cooking outdoors. They lavished prose on recipes for hamburgers, hot dogs and all manner of side dishes that were as foreign to open pit inspiration as the ragout of lamb with vegetables and the pickled salmon that appeared in James Beard’s 1942 book, Cook it Outdoors.

This surge of interest in the exterior was also accompanied by the proliferation of ranch style houses and the built-in barbecue pits of their generous, entertainment-friendly backyards. For those who had no built in pits, 1951 saw the introduction of the Weber grill. Around the same time, the parent company of Char-Broil introduced its version of barbecue’s nemesis, the gas grill. These backyards, these grills, this lifestyle became the fetish of suburban middle America. These objects held great symbolic value as expressions of arrival to the growing middle class. But what if anything did they say about food? About barbecue? Almost nowhere in the non-Southern United States was the interest in the accoutrements of barbecue accompanied by an interest in the substance of the matter: pork, beef or lamb, cooked slowly using more smoke than fire. The fire and the external setting of real barbecue had been appropriated as mere backdrops for food that had little to do with the real thing. So sacred were these outward symbols of the barbecue life that they didn’t require the further sanctification of real wood, real smoke or real barbecue.

Then it got really bad.

In the 1970s, 1980s as chains like Tony Roma’s and Houston’s began to proliferate selling ribs that diners inferred were “barbecued.” And in 1981 McDonald’s introduced the ultimate barbecue caricature, the McRib sandwich.

But at the same time, there was a barbecue renaissance in the making. The two big barbecue competitions, Memphis in May and the American Royal were both founded. Both are dedicated to a whole lot of things other than serious barbecue (corporate schmoozing, civic boosterism). Still they provided a forum for serious barbecue cooks to dedicate themselves to creating the best barbecue they could without regard to convenience, speed or expense. The competition circuit has helped spawn some of the better new barbecue restaurants in the country. Just as important, the circuit has helped spawn a community of barbecue consumers who are far more sophisticated and demanding.

These new pit masters can entice you for hours with hints about their secret techniques for the seasoning of the wood or the gauge of the metal used in fabrication of the pit or the magic number of hours required to make a tender brisket when the barometric pressure is higher or lower than usual. What is usually missing from these discussions is any talk of the main ingredient, the meat itself.

It’s almost as if a trans-substantiation has taken place. Barbecue as technique, as cultural icon, as reborn food tradition has become so great a symbol that the meat itself is a given, an afterthought. {{ image(4115, {“class”: “flol round”, “width”: “300”, “height”: “200”}) }}

At a time when moral, environmental and epicurean concerns are being raised about the system of meat  production in the United States the barbecue community had best take heed. The bucolic image portrayed in the photographs and cartoons that line the walls of barbecue restaurants from coast to coast bears no resemblance to the reality of contemporary meat farming. Gone are the days when, as one farmer’s wife in rural Tennessee said to me, “we didn’t kill hogs till it was blue cold outside.” Cows, hogs and chickens are being killed at all times of the day, under all kinds of conditions and with little regard for anything but efficiency.

In the world of barbecue, PETA is a punchline. A favorite t-shirt proclaims, “I Love Animals. They Taste Great!” In this environment, it’s hard to argue that greater concern is in order for animals whose destiny as meat is pre-ordained. But even if you believe that the judicious anointing of smoke, sauce and time cures the meat of any imperfections, there’s still plenty of reason for a re-valuation of values when it comes to the meat we barbecue.

So-called Ag Gag laws have passed in various states around the country, including Iowa, Utah, Missouri, Arkansas and South Carolina. These laws criminalize the kinds of journalism that consumers of meat rely on to know what goes into our food supply. In the past, journalists have found abusive practices at slaughterhouses ranging from the mistreatment of animals and the slaughtering of animals too sick to be allowed in to the food supply. In this anything goes climate of meat production, it’s incumbent upon the pit master to know as much about what goes into the meat as he or she does about what goes into the sauce.

And there are consequences beyond the pit and the plate. Industrial farms produce massive amounts of manure that seeps into our rivers and water supplies. In February of 2014, Ted Genoways, OnEarth magazine‘s editor-at-large, published an article examining runoff in Iowa, the nation’s top pork producing state. He found that the number of state inspectors has declined even though the amount of pork produced and runoff emitted has increased. While Iowa might be the largest producer of pork and pig manure it is not the only place where meat production has threatened public health. The National Resources Defense Council has produced a fact sheet documenting similar concerns around the country having to do with pigs, cows and chickens.

It is possible to make good barbecue, even commercial quantities of it and still turn a decent profit. Birmingham-based Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q has been doing so successfully for several years now.

{{ image(4113, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”: “200”, “height”: “300”}) }}As this nation continues its evolution backwards in cultural history toward to future of good barbecue, we should remember that sustainable meat has long been, and should always be, on the menu.

Lolis Eric Elie is a Los Angeles based writer, documentary filmmaker, and food historian. Best known for his work on the HBO series Treme, his work has also appeared in Gourmet, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Reprinted from the Slow Food USA annual magazine.