Sam Burnham, Curator
In the course of curating ideas for this site I encounter all sorts of articles. One such article popped up the other day. The headline (Do We Really Need All These Barbecue Restaurants?) is provocative enough to muster consternation. The deeper you read into the article the more you realize the article isn’t really about barbecue joints at all. That’s fine, it’s a rhetorical device used by the writer to make a point about a totally different topic.
But the set up made me think. I stopped to take stock of things going on in my own hometown. Seeing a writer in Birmingham who isn’t some snowbird transplant bemoaning the demise of a location of the Saigon Noodle House in favor of Rodney Scott’s Birmingham location was a bit of a cringe inducing experience.
My mind goes back to Anthony Bourdain taking his show Parts Unknown to South Carolina. He was discussing barbecue with Sean Brock, one of the South’s premier chefs. Brock was explaining that despite the plethora of barbecue joints throughout the South the truth is that great barbecue is not necessarily common. In fact, he explained, there’s a lot of bad barbecue out there.
Coach Burnham and I had a similar discussion recently. We were riding together and passed a place he said he’d never tried. I mentioned that the sauce was glorified ketchup and that he should probably pass on it. This was after he convinced me to try another local spot that I was cautious about because of its multiple locations. Surprisingly it was good and I’ve been back a few times.
While I do admit that unremarkable and even bad barbecue is more prevalent than the culinary treasures of pit masters like Rodney Scott, there’s still some comfort in knowing that one of the South’s quintessential cuisines still thrives in the Birmingham metropolitan area. As culture in the United States continues to devolve from a rich, diverse fabric of regional subcultures to an amalgamation - bland and boring. Chain restaurants and perfectly unseasoned television accents replace barbecue joints, po boy shacks, and the priceless sound of Gullah-Geechee and Creole French dialects. It’s important that we remember that Panda Express is not diversity. Chipotle is not diversity. That’s the facts in a nation that recently said Taco Bell was the best Mexican restaurant in the land,
While I’m not advocating some puritanical total abstinence from any and all chain restaurants, a devotion to some national institution can rob you of the joy of your local taqueria, which is just as much a part of the fabric of the South as your local barbecue joints.
So do we really need all these barbecue restaurants? In a word, yes. And, yes, we need noodle houses and taquerias. And we also need the Geechee to speak Geechee, the Acadians to speak French, and the Cherokee to speak Cherokee. We need to celebrate our tradition of blues, soul, gospel, country, rock, and bluegrass music. We need the diversity that comes from local and regional idiosyncrasies. The South needs to be different than the rest of the country and Southerners need to be different from each other while still being united in our similarities and the values we hold in common. If Southern culture is to survive, we need it all.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire