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25 september 2016

Great barbecue is an ephemeral experience. Every barbecue experience is unique, and attempts to standardize barbecue into chain-restaurant form are notoriously dissatisfying. The best barbecue I ever ate was in a hole in the wall somewhere off the New York State Thruway between Albany and Westchester; I couldn't tell you where for the life of me. Most fond barbecue memories are like that: some little shack that no longer exists; alternatively, one particular pit dug for one particular occasion, its effects of smoke and succulence forever unrepeatable. But maybe I was just real hungry that day.

My current favorite barbecue place is the Hickory Stick, which is down the road a piece, as all good barbecue should be. The Hickory Stick trades in chopped brisket, chopped sausage, potato salad, fiberglass trays, melamine plates, and the kind of flatware you can bend like Silly Putty. They've got barbed wire on the walls and a plastic steer on the roof and high-school football on the TV. This is Texas, after all.

Jonathan Deutsch and Megan Elias show in their global history of barbecue that the technique is more about ambiance than content. It's about the ritual, the division of labor, the sides, the arguments, the beer. Barbecue can be made of almost any content, provided it meets the authors' criteria: slow smoke-roasting, as opposed to grilling directly on a surface or a flame. (By this measure the famous Australian "barbie" isn't a barbecue at all.) Physical equipment includes "poles, holes, racks, and ovens" (47) and little more, and they can be made of whatever ingenuity suggests.

Barbecue must have been spontaneously invented and reinvented many times in human history, the authors suggest. Pit-barbecue techniques in particular characterize ancient cultures from Polynesia to North America to North Africa. Spitting and grilling and smoking meat happens just about everywhere people eat meat.

The nuances come in the brining or marinating, the quality of the smoke source, and the after-the-fact sauce. Endless Southern arguments over barbecue are all about the frills. Alcohol always seems to get involved. Most places in the world, it seems, barbecue is traditionally coded masculine. Special-occasion barbecues, and the wide world of competitive barbecuing, seem to be male preserves to this day. But roadstand barbecue is often prepared by women or families. Men, to stereotype, do the flashy big-occasion thing, but women are steadier providers of barbecue as a staple.

I cannot try the recipes in Barbecue, for want of equipment. I get my barbecue outside the home. Though at that … my local Kroger's has started to sell filets of salmon along with miniature cedar planks. I've roasted some of these in my home oven and they are passable, though what the cedar adds during a few minutes in the heat is anyone's guess. You're supposed to use and re-use the cedar but where do you store fish-oily cedar boards on the off-chance that you'll make a habit of the practice? But in my own commercial modern American way, I am emulating traditions of planked fish from Native Americans who invented the process, using materials – salmon and wood – that their ecosystem offered inexhaustibly. I like the echo of American practices past.

Deutsch, Jonathan, and Megan J. Elias. Barbecue: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2014.