A lot happened in the world of barbecue in 2015. New restaurants opened for business, and a few old favorites closed their doors. Barbecue cooks earned fine-dining laurels, and we debated inclusiveness and the importance of long-standing traditions. Over the course of the year, barbecue’s popularity and critical acclaim only continued to grow, though there was also a lot of worry over where those forces were leading us. Let’s take a look back over a busy barbecue year.
Aaron Franklin & the Barbecue Boom
We might go ahead and declare 2015 to be the year of Aaron Franklin. In April he released Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto, which earned a spot on the New York Times Best Sellers List—a rare feat for a barbecue cookbook. The following month, he received the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest, putting a barbecue pitmaster on the same stage as the country’s most acclaimed fine-dining chefs. Franklin’s Austin restaurant was visited by NBC’s Today Show and CBS’s The Dish, and he traveled to places like San Francisco and Portland to cook at special events. If all that wasn’t enough, he also launched his own PBS show, BBQ with Franklin.
Aaron Franklin may have earned the most acclaim, but he was only one of many pitmasters leading a full-on barbecue boom that extended far beyond the South. Denver, Colorado, for instance, embraced fire, smoke, and meat as a parade of new barbecue restaurants opened their doors. In August, the New York Times managed to track down some serious barbecue restaurants in New Jersey, of all places. A bunch of Harvard engineering students undertook a course of study in mastering the science of cooking brisket.
The appeal of Southern-style barbecue continued to grow overseas, too. As Jay Rayner of The Guardian memorably put it in November, “US barbecue restaurants have spread across Britain with the eagerness of a sprightly bacterial growth on agar jelly. They’re now bloody everywhere.” Barbecue joints in the U.K. now number in the dozens, and they’ve crossed over to the Continent, too. In August, the New York Times reported on five American-style barbecue restaurants in operation in the heart of Paris.
Back home in the States, big restaurant chains jumped on the bandwagon. In June, Burger King introduced a pulled pork sandwich with pickles and onions on a long Yumbo bun. Just a few months later, Wendy’s, “inspired by a desire to create a new BBQ tradition for America” (to use the words of the company’s “chief concept officer”) came out with their own BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich. Applebee’s topped a burger with shredded beef brisket, among other questionable things.
Barbecue, it seemed, was just about everywhere in 2015.
Controversy & Worry
All this buzz and hype was bound to stir up controversy. A range of articles pondered such questions as whether New York City should be considered one of America’s barbecue capitals and whether, thanks to outside influences, barbecue was undergoing a radical transformation.
In late July, a Fox News piece on “the most influential BBQ pitmasters and personalities” sparked a firestorm, since all of the faces included were white. Numerous commentators fired back with their objections and their own alternative lists of influencers, calling for a fuller recognition of barbecue’s long, diverse heritage. (I published a list of my own, suggesting the 15 most influential people in barbecue history.)
There was also a lot of kerfuffle about government intervention—specifically, fears that regulators were trying to outlaw barbecue. It started with a tiny EPA research grant that somehow got inflated into a perceived government conspiracy to ban backyard barbecue grills. Later, when the city of Austin debated regulating the emissions from barbecue pits, many voiced anguished fears that barbecue was about to be outlawed in brisket-mad Texas.
In the end, the effort amounted to a lot of smoke without much fire. State officials, in fact, proved to be some of the most passionate promoters of barbecue in 2015. The Alabama Tourism Department declared “The Year of Alabama Barbecue” and celebrated the state’s slow-cooking traditions with a slick web site, a smart phone app, a book, an hour-long documentary, and a traveling photo exhibit. Not to be outdone, the state of North Carolina released a barbecue-scented scratch and sniff lottery ticket.
Much more of a threat than meddling bureaucrats were grease fires and electrical shorts. In January, a fire struck Memphis’s legendary Cozy Corner and forced the operation to move to temporary quarters while planning repairs. In Savannah, Georgia, B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue experienced a devastating fire in June, but they bounced back with the help of their loyal customers and a few fellow barbecue restaurateurs. Up in Hemingway, South Carolina, Rodney Scott completed an entirely new, fire-proof pit house to replace the one destroyed by fire almost two years before.
The Inexorable Spread of Brisket and the Future of Barbecue
For me, the most significant stories in 2015 had to do with the larger trends shaping the future of the Southern barbecue tradition.
The recent vogue of beef brisket has only continued to grow, blurring in its greasy wake traditional regional preferences for meats and sauces. This year, I noted the ongoing incursion of brisket into the Carolinas, and not just at new-fangled places but also at classic joints like Melvin’s in Charleston and Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Commentators like the Washington Post‘s Jim Shahin noticed it, too, and delved into the cultural forces behind brisket’s remarkable rise.
At first, it looked like the popularity of brisket might end up pricing it out of the market. 2015 opened with record prices for that now-prized cut of beef, but, as Daniel Vaughn of Texas Monthly’s TMBBQ faithfully reported, the cost steadily declined over the course of the year to end up around $2.00 a pound wholesale—scotching my hypothesis that economics (and a bit of an image makeover) might thrust beef shoulder clod back into a starring role.
At the same time, two related and more encouraging trends were underway: a return to all-wood cooking and a revival of whole hog barbecue. Though their adoption of Texas-style brisket went against the Carolina tradition, Melvin’s in Charleston also returned to cooking over all wood around the same time. Howard Conyers, a NASA rocket scientist who grew up cooking whole hogs on his family’s South Carolina farm, undertook a series of events to help keep the tradition alive.
Across the Carolinas, a slew of new wood-cooked whole hog restaurants are opening their doors. Just in time for Christmas, Rhett Elliot and Porter Barron, Jr., opened the War Mouth in downtown Columbia, South Carolina, while Elliot Moss, a James Beard nominee for Best Chef Southeast, launched Buxton Hall in Asheville. In Durham, North Carolina, caterer Wyatt Dickson is opening a wood-cooked whole hog joint, and Sam Jones, the third generation pitmaster from the family that runs the famous Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, opened Sam Jones BBQ, his own whole hog joint in nearby Winterville.
Three years ago, the future survival of wood-cooked whole hog in the Carolinas looked bleak. Nowadays, it’s looking downright rosy.
So that’s 2015. All told, when it came to barbecue, it was a year full of energy and excitement, controversy and debate. Will the South’s rich barbecue tradition be re-energized and strengthened in the year to come, or will the forces of commerce and media hype dilute and distort it?
Time will tell. This much seems certain, though: in 2016, we’ll have plenty of barbecue to savor. And plenty to talk about, too.