As I’ve been driving around the South sampling barbecue, I regularly alternate between half-century-old joints and brand new, upscale smokehouses. Experienced back-to-back, the contrasts between the older and newer modes of barbecue can be striking.
The classic places hew closely to the preferred meats of their region—pork in the Carolinas, beef in Texas—and usually offer just a single flavor of sauce and a handful of sides. The newer spots, which I’ve taken to calling nouveau ‘cue, are more liberal in their choice of meats as well as with sauces they serve alongside. Brisket is no longer found just west of the Mississippi, and turkey, sausage, and chicken are commonplace. Just about everyone is pulling pork shoulders and slow-smoking ribs these days, and a six pack of sauce bottles, each a different hue, often awaits at your table.
One additional difference between old and new has started to stand out for me lately, and it’s a matter of proportion. The old-school places tend to be quite modest in the variety and amount of food served. One or two choices of meat, served on a sandwich or on a plate with a couple of side options and perhaps a hamburger or hotdog for those not into barbecue. And the portions are downright modest: four to six ounces of meat on a sandwich, and similar sized scoop on a plate or a tray.
Not so in the nouveau ‘cue world. Variety is the order of the day, with a half dozen meats, a score of sides, and a full slate of appetizers, too. Who really needs those appetizers isn’t exactly clear, for the big combination platters arrive groaning with enough smoked meat to feed a junior varsity football team. The sandwiches cram softball-sized mounds of pulled pork or sliced brisket between fat Kaiser rolls, with toothpicks or even big steak knives plunged through the tops just to keep the content together until the first bite.
There’s an extreme devil-may-care aesthetic in the nouveau ‘cue world—barbecue as a culinary thrill ride. And like the multi-loop inverted roller coasters at the big theme parks, you’ll likely wait in line for nearly an eternity just for the experience, especially if you’re dining in a hip barbecue center like Austin, Texas, where people apparently are not only really hungry but have plenty of free time on their hands.
That aesthetic has now spread far outside of Texas, with brisket being elevated to the pinnacle of esteem and the central Texas meat-market style coming to represent in the popular imagination of the dominant mode of American barbecue. It’s a carnivore’s carnival: mounds of beef, ribs, sausage, and pork ordered by the pound and piled one after another onto stainless steel trays and brown butcher paper to be eaten with the hands, fingers dripping with grease.
I suspect this super-sizing of barbecue is related to a larger backlash against the constant nutritional scolding against fats and meat we’ve been hearing for decades now. If a 4 ounce patty on a burger is tasty, why not bump it up to half pound or more? And instead of topping it with just three strips of bacon, let’s pile on nine! If a pile of sliced brisket with the fat cap still on seems indulgent, why not kick it up one more notch with a massive prime-grade beef rib glistening with fat, a big Flintstone-style bone still attached?
Social-media-driven food fads—the Cronut, Shake Shack, food trucks, and, yes, even Franklin Barbecue in Austin—have played a role, too, prompting trend-conscious diners to queue up for hours to eat the next new thing because that’s what everyone else is doing. And if you are going to wait for hours in a line for something to eat, the reward waiting at the front better be a sheer over-the-top experience.
Against that whole backdrop, there’s something refreshing about getting out onto the twisting two-lane highways and visiting the less-celebrated parts of the barbecue South, where you can duck into old-school places like Fresh Air in Jackson, Georgia, or Knoth’s in Grand Rivers, Kentucky. The sandwiches are modest in proportion, and you rarely wait longer than two minutes to order. You leave with a belly that’s satisfied but not groaning, ready to get on with the rest of your day instead of having to lay down in a cool, dark room for a nap.
So let’s praise the modest barbecue sandwich and the compact Piedmont-style barbecue tray. There’s a time and a place for the culinary thrill ride—the lightning-fast coaster with double helix turns and a 300 foot drop. When it comes to everyday barbecue, though, sometimes a little goes a very long way.