Friday, July 2, 2010

Red states Blue states Barbecue steaks

When traveling I can go several days without eating. In fact I often do.  But with assistants & clients in tow I have to be much more conscientious about sustenance & entertainment.  Clients & art directors like nice restaurants.

Because I am always in an alien environment, finding the appropriate eatery can be daunting. Concierges at tony hotels can be helpful but many of the flop houses I am forced to frequent have very pedestrian tastes.  There are only so many chain restaurants you can tolerate. OLIVE GARDENs or OUTBACKs get tired after a while.

On full scale photography projects the care & feeding of your crew is always a problem. In a pinch, or on the fly, we even will scoff down McDONALD’s or SUBWAY. But we often roll into town so late that nothing but an all night, caveat emptor, greasy spoon can accommodate our appetites. 

The one universal axiom I have observed, every municipality supports a barbecue place.  Unco-opted by corporate, mass market oversight or franchise efficiencies (McDonald’s McRibs failed?), they are mostly unique, idiosyncratic & one-of-a-kind establishments. In 48 of our 50 states, I’ve been forced to search out a lot of BBQ restaurants on assignments.  The real dispute in the USA is not over Democratic or Republican, East Coast/West Coast, Urban versus rural. But preference over beef or pork barbecue.

Spelling Bee

Folks cannot even agree on how it is spelled: Barbecue, Barbeque, Bar-B-Q, B-B-Cue, BBQ, Q. Or is it just colloquial. Free-for-all spelling. Regional. It is at once a verb, a noun, an adjective.  Some zealots even think barbecuing is a religion.  In different parts of the USA, the citizenry claims their style to be authentic, genuine, the only true heir; all others are fakes.  Organizations like the Kansas City Barbeque Society & the Central Texas Barbecue Association have grown up to defend the regional declaration of authority. The fact that men have been burning meat in all corners of the world for centuries is irrelevant.
The barbecue was invented more than eighty million years ago by Cro-Magnon
Man, who was the son of Stephanie Cro and Eric Magnon, a primitive but
liberated couple.
                              --Dave Barry

Something For Everyone

 Like the six gun, barbecue is the modern day great equalizer.  Origins may not be American but it is an American institution now. Barbeque transcends gender, age & social demographic. There are regional derivations, personal differences or ethnic translations but you can get BBQ in any city in the USA. Lexington, North Carolina claims to be the “Barbecue Capital of the World”, while SNOWS BBQ in Lexington, Texas is the “best Texas BBQ in the world”. Go figure.

BBQ conjures up equally Mississippi Delta & Brownsville, Texas, up to Columbus, Ohio down to the Rio Grande Valley.  The foodstuff morphs as it crosses borders & racial lines but it brings people of all ilk together. It is nomadic. Pneumatic too. It has great tradition. To seek barbecue is to reach out & taste the past. Some people promote it as a mythic food with all kinds of attributes to its ingestion. It practically has its own network on television.

Mind's Eye

To my mind’s eye when you are on the perfect quest for mythic BBQ you find it by smell not by signage. As a matter of fact, an obvious marquee may be a drawback. Marketing is mostly word-of-mouth. It should be located next to LAST CHANCE GAS where you fill up your rental car. There is blues in the air—a radio or juke box or a live band loud in the back. Fading business cards or handwritten notes are stuck to the walls declaring undying “thanks” for the food. Neon signs advertising obscure beers illuminate the interior, day & night. A screen door slams behind us as we enter. Maybe some sawdust on the floor. The place can have atmosphere but otherwise décor is optional. The “chef” despite his/her intimate knowledge of the physics of fire should have no eyebrows because of years standing too close to the flames. Missing teeth is a nice touch too. Sauce should be so tasty & smoky that you cannot wash the smell off your hands or the stain from your clothes. It should run down my arms to the elbow then to the ground.  I have to wipe my hands on my pants because napkins just stick to your fingers.

Besides the carnivorous aspects of eating barbecue there are certain ingredients that enhance the experience. Tomatoes, molasses, vinegar, brown sugar are part of some recipes but ambiance adds amour with the addition of sweet tea, Dr Pepper or Lone Star beer.  Cooks can specialize in pulled pork or brisket, etc. but potato salad, corn bread, beans, collard greens & other sides are compulsory for a proper menu.


Magically there is a direct connection between barbecue & music. It is the thing of legend.  Lyrics are sung in the vernacular of Country/Western or blues.  Jazz genius Louis Armstrong refers to it in “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue”.  People when referring to authentic sound speak of all three genres. And the subject matters are so inbred: rednecks, racism & food.

1)  Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown: Sheriff"s Barbecue
2)  ZZ Top: Bar-B-Q
3)  Phish: At the Barbecue
4)  Joe Ely: BBQ and Foam

Besides the lyrics much of our language & slang has been fashioned to describe where we eat BBQ: shacks, roadhouses & the onomatopoetic: juke joints & honky tonks.

Last year my assistant & I walked up & down the infamous Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, bathed in glaring electric billboards, sampling the clubs, bands & sauces. Blaring from every open door was a different performance. We heard everything from “down home” to Chicago blues & tasted great pork, sharing every genre from Paul Butterfield to Mississippi John Hurt.

Why Do Men Barbeque?

Many husbands & fathers would not be caught dead in a kitchen but confronted with a slab of steak will rub two sticks together & imitate cavemen. What attracts males to the BBQ pit?

1)  Something primal about barbecuing.
2)  Grills are easy to clean. You can do it with a garden hose.
3)  It is a guy thing.
4)  It is dangerous. You've got a flame. You've got lighter fluid. You’ve got men imbibing alcohol. What more can you want?

Although primitive in its inception (our fathers & grandfathers went out into the backyard & cooked), barbecuing remains so popular that it has spawned barbecue postmodernists. Passed on from generation to generation, these new crazed radicals use digital thermometers, thermostats, wood pellets, injections & some even use gas or electric cookers.  Whether you are an old school purist or a product of Generation Z, “it’s all good”.

Because I travel so much I have sampled a lot of what passes for haute cuisine.  I am not a gourmet but I am a gourmand.  The way it was explained to me years ago, a gourmet eats good food while a gourmand eats anything as long as it is good. So I will continue to ferret out barbecue until my doctor tells me otherwise.


  • 1 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce (hopefully it is not store bought)
  • 3-4 pounds pork spareribs (baby back or beef or lamb or goat)
  •  Apply your secret dry rub (spices, brown sugar, salt &/or garlic powder,to preference)
  • Grill the whole rib rack over low heat for one to three & a half hours (fire made from charcoal, mesquite or apple wood or use a smoker)
  • Brush with the barbecue sauce for the last fifteen minutes (taking care not to let the sauce burn
  • Cut the ribs into three rib portions
  • Enjoy


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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.