Barbecue Team

24 Aug 2009

Barbecue, meat slowly smoke-roasted over indirect heat, is probably not much younger than the union of fire and meat themselves, but the international competitive barbecue circuit is a contemporary popular culture phenomenon.

I spent summer 2002 with Swine by Design, a pseudonym for a competition barbecue team in the US. These men—and one woman—are all design and office professionals, who spend hundreds of dollars and hours each summer to travel the country competing in barbecue.

These teams, couples, restaurateurs with friends, or self-selected groups of two to twelve or more travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to cook competition barbecue for the chance to win cash prizes of up to thousands of US dollars. Pork shoulder, ribs and whole hog are standards in competition, and sometimes beef brisket, chicken, or “anything but [the above list]” are entered.

Barbecue is considered man’s domain. Literature is quick to point out the machismo of barbecue, but often begs the question of ‘why’ with stereotypes. Ken, a Swine by Design team member, gives his explanation:

“It’s the outdoors, sitting around, feeling the chill of a summer night. Getting hopped up on espresso. Listening to tunes. Drinking Jack [Daniel’s]. Tending fire. It’s primitive. It’s nature. It’s companionship. It’s conversation. It’s fun. It’s guy stuff.”

Competition barbecue, for Swine by Design is ‘guy stuff’. But why? And what are some ways its machismo is manifested?

When I embarked on this project I anticipated returning from my fieldwork well-fed on barbecue staples. The thought certainly did nothing to dissuade me from the project. But the team never cooked meals. All of Swine by Design’s food preparation energy is focused on the competition, and meals during the two days of the competition are afterthoughts at best.

Meat is always tasted, but the tasting is just that—a taste. The team scientifically scrutinizes their submission for smokiness, moistness, color, tenderness, and meat flavor.

This dismissal of meals, which would be, in the words of Brian, “a domestic nicety”, is part of a larger embracing of what the team identifies as masculine—science, planning, wood, knives, gadgets, smoke. The men also deliberately dismiss or parody tasks that they find more ‘womanly’.

The most glaring example of parody is their use of the label ‘Garnish Fag’ to designate the man who will be garnishing the meat with fresh greens, and the accompaniment of the garnishing and presentation of the meat with typically feminine music such as the cast recording of My Fair Lady. Ed is careful to announce, “For the record, this is my wife’s CD”.

Garnishing departs from the other activities—involving fresh not cooked, cold not hot, delicate not sloppy, picked not slaughtered, minutes not days to prepare. By adopting the moniker and the music, the team reinforces gender stereotypes and affirms their self-reported identities as straight men. Using the term the ‘Garnish Fag’ at once acknowledges a man’s ambivalence with his role and his esprit de corps.

Such ambivalence is absent in the case of gadgetry, truly macho to the team. They obsess on finding ways to make their hobby more efficient. Swine by Design’s latest addition was a digital thermometer that wirelessly transmits readings and alarms the cook at key temperatures. “With this baby I can be asleep in the hotel room and be woken up when the meat’s done,” Andrew boasts. But he seldom leaves the cooker.

If every logical convenience were incorporated, the team would do what team members jokingly suggest—buy barbecue and submit it for judging, saving them time, money, and energy, thus reducing the competition to absurdity.

Competition barbecue is hardly a sport in the conventional sense. It may seem ridiculous to think that a competition devoted to sedentary activity and consumption of fatty meats is anything but loafing. But sport and athleticism are important aspects to the masculine performance of competition barbecue for Swine by Design.

Competitions involve two full days of sun, smoke, heat and physical activity, as well as, for smaller teams without distinct shifts, an overnight of hourly waking to check the meat and fire. Hugh says their raison d’être comes down to one thing:

“Barbecue chicks, groupies. That’s the answer to everything. That’s why we do it. That’s why our wives don’t like it. That’s why we spend the money. That’s it. It all comes down to barbecue chicks.”

Despite this emphatic assertion, such ‘chicks’ were absent. What Hugh sees, I think, is the masculine team sport element of mild-mannered architects suiting up for the game (yes, they have uniform shirts) to become perceivably admired masculine heroes, wanted by women and envied by men.

In the same way that a group of men in public is quite unremarkable, but the same group of men in uniforms take on another aura, so the Swine by Design competition team represents a set of ideals and mythologies separate from and not necessarily representative of the individual players.

For Swine by Design, competition barbecue is food as it should be—slow, deliberate, traditional, simple and crafted. That they can earn public recognition for this craft makes it even more valuable. For these men, maschilismo is tied to these characteristics—the craft, the competition, the meat, the smoke.

While I conducted my fieldwork in search of answers, I ended it with questions. My only firm conclusion is that the connection between men and barbecue is deep and far-reaching, easy to explain away with stereotypes and pat answers, but much more challenging to understand.

First published in Slow 47

Jonathan Deutsch, United States, is a researcher at the Department of Tourism and Hospitality at the City University of New York.

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