- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — To most Southerners, barbecue is more than just cheap meat cooked slowly. Barbecue is a cuisine, a leisure activity and a spectator sport that has been ingrained in the social fabric since it spread out of plantation smokehouses in the pre-Civil War South.

As all-American as jazz or Elvis Presley, barbecue has sparked debate, spawned rivalries and acted as a tangy unifying salve between races.

“Being so closely related to the South, barbecue was part of segregation and helped defeat it,” said Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party and author of “Barbeque’n With Bobby.”

Mr. Seale spent part of his youth working in his uncle’s barbecue restaurant in Liberty, Texas.

“Because of segregation, white folks could not even come in,” Mr. Seale said.

At first, his uncle carried barbecue to the cars of white patrons. But as word of Tom Turner’s legendary meat spread, business grew and the white patrons asked Mr. Turner to screen in the restaurant’s porch so they could come inside to eat.

“I would serve the black patrons on one side and then walk around the corner to the other side and serve the white patrons,” Mr. Seale said.

Walls eventually came down and whites and blacks ate together, but local and regional stylistic divisions from that time remain.

In a barbecue hot spot like Memphis, Tenn., where local snobs consider Texas beef brisket a travesty, the divide is over the town’s two dominant pork rib styles.

In the birthplace of the blues, the battle cry is “wet” or “dry,” referring to whether the cook uses a marinade or a dry rub of spices to season the meat.

Whites traditionally preferred “dry” ribs cooked firm with a crust and served with a spicy, runny sauce on the side. For blacks, “wet” was king, with ribs soaked and then basted while being slow-cooked for up to a day before being served drenched in thick, sweet sauce.

The wet-versus-dry rivalry isn’t split down racial lines so much anymore, but there is something of a divide over the cut of the rib, said Diane Hampton, marketing director for Memphis in May International Festival, which hosts the World Championship Barbecue Competition.

“Baby-back ribs are more popular in white sections of town; spare ribs are more popular in ethnic and black neighborhoods,” she said.

Such divisions and subsequent rivalries are just part of barbecue, said Jack Bettridge, Connecticut-based co-author of “Barbecue America: A Pilgrimage in Search of America’s Best Barbecue.”

“Barbecue is about feuding,” Mr. Bettridge says. “It’s a cuisine that comes from backwoods. Styles start out of necessity because you cook what you raise, but eventually it turns into a matter of pride, so now they’re these great regional cuisines around the country.”

The Eastern Carolinas are all about a vinegar-based sauce. In Texas, it’s beef. In the Mississippi Delta, it’s pork. In the Midwest, it’s a smorgasbord, Mr. Bettridge said.

Rivalry has sparked competitions from Texas to Thailand, while barbecue meccas like Kansas City support more than two dozen contests per year.

Three out of four U.S. households have a barbecue grill, which they collectively light up about 3 billion times per year, Mr. Bettridge said.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of spectators flock to watch thousands of teams compete at major events, like barbecue’s Triple Crown: the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo barbecue contest in Texas, Memphis in May and Kansas City’s American Royal Barbecue.

Despite barbecue’s ability to bring whites and blacks together under one roof for supper, the cuisine hasn’t had much luck getting them together at events like the Great American Barbecue.

“In the competition world, you just don’t get a lot of black contestants,” Mr. Bettridge said.

Organizers agree that competitions could do with more diversity, but don’t have a clear idea how they turned out so lily-white.

“I’ve about concluded that [blacks] just think they don’t have anything to prove,” said Carolyn Wells, executive director of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, a governing body that regulates contests.

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