Tuesday, March 31, 2009

BBQ Book Review - Savage Barbecue

Title: Savage Barbecue
Author: Andrew Warnes
Published: 2008 by University of Georgia Press

Most books about barbecue either take the form of a recipe book, a compilation of reviews, or profiles about barbecue personalities. In Andrew Warnes book Savage Barbecue, there is a much deeper investigation of not only the term "barbecue", but its historical and cultural significance as the so-called national food of the good ole USA. The task is daunting, and on most points, the author provides great encyclopedic knowledge of the subject, while using that knowledge to back up sometimes down right outlandish arguments about how racial relationships molded the history of this great food.

The book begins as an enlightening account of ancient bbq history including written accounts of the first barbecue ever mentioned in print "Three Pigs of Peckham" by Edward Ward, as well as an explantion of the origination of the word "barbecue" from the original "barbacoa". Soon the reader realizes that each of these points will soon become ammunition for racial accusations concerning all things barbecue

Through the rest of the book, the author's explanations are at once compelling and ridiculous. Many of his arguments begin with poignant observations about barbecue in a cultural and culinary sense, and then come to a crashing conclusion whose only purpose is fit all historical mentions of barbecue into his big bucket of racism. One section begins promisingly with the observation that the culinary elite because "the great time and effort demanded by this food seem to them betrayed by its unforgiveable appearance among ketchup and soda, plastic cutlery and tabletops, and other paraphernalia alien to their idea of culinary excellence." He then points to the irony that although barbecue is not considered "cuisine" by the gastronomic elite, urban chain bbq joints who use gas fired smokers will place a pile of wood outside of their restaurant merely to fake their authenticity. This fact lends credibility to the argument that barbecue is a true cuisine whose fans have discerning tastes and expectations of proper cooking technique. Well said, but this astute observation soon turns to the almost laughable argument that "these woodpiles spirit attention away from the kitchen, away from the underpaid and overworked descendants of slaves so often to be found therein." So we are to believe that fake stacks of wood are conciously or unconciously placed alongside some cityfied bbq joint because that will somehow camouflage the color of the employees? That's a road I'm not willing to follow the author down.

Another similar observation is that Thomas Jefferson liked to consider himself a common man, but when it came to partaking in activities associated with the actual common population (like barbecues), he was more likely to be found at a grand dinner. He then uses the fact that Jefferson neither attended or wrote about barbecues to argue that "Jefferson's silence on barbecue suggests he finds its barbarity, its stark racial alterity, hard to stomach." Hold on here, is the negative proving the positive here? I thought we threw that out in ninth grade English class.

The most enjoyable part about the book is the sheer amount of intriguing references and quotations compiled. One of my favoriters is from John Shelton in an essay for Cornbread Nation 2. He says, "Barbecue is the closest thing we have in the United States to Europe's wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes." I couldn't agree more. If you can stay awake during the diatribes, and use your own critical thinking to assess the quality of Mr. Warnes' arguments, then this book can be enjoyed. Just don't take it's weak lines of reasoning too seriously.

- BBQ Snob

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Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.