My longtime friend John Shelton Reed talked me into joining his barbecue group, The Campaign for Real Barbecue. The organization started in North Carolina to combat the sinking standards there. Many barbecue joints have abandoned cooking with wood or coals and are now roasting their pork shoulders in gas or electric ovens. They serve the chopped meat with lots of barbecue sauce and bet the public can’t tell the difference.
The Campaign for Real Barbecue sends its certifiers out to identify the good guys. Barbecue joints that are making real artisan wood smoked barbecue proudly display the group’s decal on their front window.
“Real barbecue” in Texas means burning logs–maybe in an Oyler electric-powered rotisserie, maybe in a steel pit. In Texas, we still have community barbecues that use old-fashioned open pits like the kind you see in old photos of from the Deep South. Meanwhile, cooking with logs or wood coals is pretty rare in North Carolina and the Southeast–the places that do it are well-known and widely famous.
The Campaign for Real Barbecue is about raising public awareness and creating a cadre of educated barbecue fans. The goal is to promote barbecue that is actually made with some variety of wood smoke rather than an oven. And so the campaign uses a very loose definition of wood smoke that includes charcoal, cookers that use a little wood and a lot of gas, pellet cookers, and sawdust cookers.
I put off joining the organization for quite a while. Cooking meat in an oven and passing it off as barbecue isn’t really a problem in Texas. As I told John Shelton Reed, I can’t think of a single barbecue joint in Texas, good, bad or indifferent that doesn’t qualify for The Campaign for Real Barbecue certification.
But my book, Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey covers North Carolina and the rest of the South, and the book is about the loss of our barbecue traditions. So if I was going to write about the subject, I felt like I should lend my support to the campaign. The campaign is also endorsed by Calvin Trillin, the dean of American barbecue writing.
Plus they have a great newsletter.
Update: A note from John Shelton Reed:
Many thanks for writing about our Campaign, Robb. As you say, most “barbecue” restaurants in the Carolinas now cook solely with gas or electricity. Not only that, when we do have community “barbecues” — three annual church fund-raisers within ten miles of us, for instance — most of them cook with gas, too. So do the winners at whole-hog cooking contests in eastern North Carolina, where points are given for “appearance” (smoke discolors the hog).
A sorry state of things, and not unique to us. True, the faux ‘cue plaque is at epidemic levels here, but I’ve seen cases from most other Southern states east of the Mississippi. Y’all in the Southwest should count your blessings, be vigilant, and keep us in your prayers.