Restaurant critic Jason Sheehan has a passion for barbecue with all the homemade fixings on the side. He believes barbecue unites us, comforts us and is the only thing he can’t get enough of.
After listening to the results of this project for several weeks, I knew I could do three minutes, too. Certainly not on world peace or the search for meaning in an increasingly distracted world or anything as grave and serious as all that, but on a belief just as true.
I believe in barbecue. As soul food and comfort food and health food, as a cuisine of both solace and celebration. When I’m feeling good, I want barbecue. And when I’m feeling bad, I just want barbecue more. I believe in barbecue in all its regional derivations, in its ethnic translations, in forms that range from white-tablecloth presentations of cunningly sauced costillas, to Chinese take-out spareribs that stain your fingers red, to the most authentic product of the tar-paper rib shacks of the Deep South. I believe that like sunshine and great sex, no day is bad that has barbecue in it.
I believe in the art of generations of pit-men working in relative obscurity to keep alive the craft of slow-smoking as it’s been practiced for as long as there’s been fire. A barbecue cook must have an intimate understanding of his work, the physics of fire and convection, the hard science of meat and heat and smoke – and then forget it all to achieve a sort of gut-level, Zen instinct for the process.
I believe that barbecue drives culture, not the other way around. Some of the first blows struck for equality and civil rights in the Deep South were made not in the courtrooms or schools or on buses, but in the barbecue shacks. There were dining rooms, back yards and roadhouse juke joints in the South that were integrated long before any other public places.
I believe that good barbecue requires no décor, and that the best barbecue exists despite its trappings. Paper plates are okay in a barbecue joint. And paper napkins. And plastic silverware. And I believe that any place with a menu longer than can fit on a single page – or better yet, just a chalkboard – is coming dangerously close to putting on airs.
I believe that good barbecue needs sides the way good blues need rhythm, and that there is only one rule: Serve whatever you like but whatever you serve, make it fresh. Have someone’s mama in the back doing the “taters” and hush puppies and sweet tea, because Mama will know what she’s doing – or at least know better than some assembly-line worker bagging up powdered mashed potatoes by the ton.
I believe that proper barbecue ought to come in significant portions. Skinny people can eat barbecue, and do, but the kitchen should cook for a fat man who hasn’t eaten since breakfast. My leftovers should last for days.
I believe that if you don’t get sauce under your nails when you’re eating, you’re doing it wrong. I believe that if you don’t ruin your shirt, you’re not trying hard enough.
I believe – I know – there is no such thing as too much barbecue. Good, bad or in-between, old-fashioned pit-smoked or high-tech and modern; it doesn’t matter. Existing without gimmickry, without the infernal swindles and capering of so much of contemporary cuisine, barbecue is truth; it is history and home, and the only thing I don’t believe is that I’ll ever get enough.
Jason Sheehan is a James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic. His barbecue obsession began at 16 with a trip to Hercules Chicken and Ribs in his hometown of Rochester, New York. Although he worked as a chef for 13 years, he lets his wife do the cooking at home.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Edited by Ellen Silva.
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