Great BBQ, Great Friends
What I learned from BBQ joints, and why it matters.
I feel I’ve had an upbringing that was both broad and deep. My parents put a lot of time and effort into providing me as many opportunities as they could and did a fantastic job at doing so, but that’s not exactly it. It’s more than that. It was the people they were, the people they knew and interacted with, the places they went to and brought me with them. Most importantly, it was consistent, reasoned, and responsible explanations to my endless demands of “Why?”
A number of things stand out as remarkably significant in this pantheon of experience as I get older. Over a lot of time spent ruminating about it, I’ve managed to find a few very specific people, situations, events, and experiences that seem to have shaped me most significantly. A lot of these are entirely mundane, nothing immediately special or exciting, which I find quite interesting.
One of these in particular, however, concerns us here today. I’d like to explain my youthful experiences at BBQ joints, and one BBQ joint in specific: B’s Bar-B-Que.
B’s was a beat-up old building that I suspect was a much-renovated house originally, with a tiny dining room and a long counter with stools. It served some of the best BBQ pork I’ve ever had to this day and was a local institution run by an elderly black gentleman, the eponymous B. It was just off a major road, behind a car-wash place, and decades later I still miss it.
My dad took me there the first time when I was very little and quite picky; I refused to have anything other than cheeseburgers and fries. I learned very quickly to love the BBQ sauce, however, and the rest of the menu wasn’t far behind. A life-long relationship with BBQ was formed. While this jaunt down memory lane is nice, that wasn’t the main thing I learned from B’s.
What made B’s such a memorable experience was that it was the first place I ever encountered such a thoroughly mixed selection of humanity. The parking lot was a motley collection, everything from muddy work trucks to brand-new Ferraris. The people inside were every color and extraction, wearing every variation of clothing. There were thousand-dollar suits rubbing elbows with paint-spattered overalls. Landscapers laughing together with lawyers.
It stood out so clearly because it was so unique. Even churches of the time were largely segregated by class, but all of them would gather for the same BBQ right after service on Sunday. It was this ‘melting pot’ example, true democratization due to good food, that settled an idea into my head at a very young age: people aren’t so different. We all have the same basic interests and needs, largely, no matter our particular differences. We can all appreciate great BBQ, and we enjoy doing so.
I’ve found more of these over the years since. Breakfast spots, greasy spoons, Southern-style kitchens, late-night diners. While they all have their own merits they still don’t quite draw the variety that good BBQ does. You won’t find quite the same absurd range of cars in the lot or clothing worn inside. That’s not even drawing attention to how long people will drive to get their sliced brisket, burnt ends, or pulled pork. Even more so these days, the most famous BBQ getting visitors from across the country and even across the oceans.
If something as simple as tasty food, just slow-cooking meat over a wood fire, can draw all these disparate people together for a short time, then a person can be forgiven for thinking there’s a way we can all get along. In fact, I think it’s one of the best ways to encourage people to get along. There’s something hard to resist in the prosaic act of ‘breaking bread’ with others; it evens out the differences for a time. Gives a baseline shared experience upon which to build.
B’s wonderful Bar-B-Que might have become just a memory, after he retired the business was run into the ground not too long after. The trend of BBQ joints as a gathering place for all and sundry continues, however, and is probably more pronounced today than it’s ever been. It’s a lot easier to get the word out about these out-of-the-way spots, for one.
Perhaps it’s also a necessary outlet for the busy, stressful, and demanding modern lives we lead. A way to hearken back to the simplicity of an older time, while also providing a through-line of experience around which shared culture can form.
If you don’t know where the good BBQ is near you, go search it out. It’ll be worth every bit of your time, for more than just the awesome food.