As a little kid, my Dad’s office was a magical place. The walls were decorated with football memorabilia from years ago. He had a model plane of the one my grandfather flew in World War II. But perhaps what enamored me most of all were his trophies. He had a plaque remembering his hole-in-one and a couple trophies with brass-colored pigs on top. He was an award-winning pit-master. My dad had not only practiced the art of smoking meat and making sauce from scratch, he had been rewarded for his prowess. I was especially proud of those trophies because of where we lived: South Carolina.
The down-side of being the son of an acclaimed pit-cook is that you become a bit of a snob. While I was willing to acknowledge the efforts of the different regions (I got a soft-spot for mustard), no one came close to my Dad, ever. His nickname, Fatback, was synonymous for me to smoked perfection. So while I love BBQ, I almost always leave a new restaurant disappointed. But there are a few places that will always get my business when I’m in town. Recently I added a new king to this list: Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City.
While crowning a BBQ joint in Kansas City is border-line blasphemy from a Carolina boy, you have to lay aside your pride when you encounter something this good. The first thing you notice about the place is that it is a dump. It’s in a gas station. This is a plus, any self-respecting BBQ restaurant knows that decorating is limited to neon and trophies, no pretense. If you find yourself at a BBQ restaurant that actually looks nice, get out before they rob you. The energy is placed solely on the meat.
The line wrapped around the gas station and out the door, another good sign. Although it was lunch, when you go on a BBQ pilgrimage you have to get the big plate with everything on it. You have to try it all because depending on the rising and falling of the creeks, you may never get back again. So ribs and brisket it was (I retained some Carolina pride, no way they make pulled pork like we do). I was far from being disappointed.
While sumptuous details of exactly why it was so good are too numerous to include in this blog, suffice it to say they hit it out of the park. Moist, balanced, unique, hearty, tender, delicious. I could see why Anthony Bordain said it was one of the places you have to eat at before you die. I left feeling a bit more prepared for my dying day. But the trip made me ask a hard question: why is it so hard to make good BBQ?
While there is a multitude of variables, perhaps the most prominent is that it is art. All (good) cooking is art, that’s why when food's mass-produced it fails to inspire or even satisfy. Yet BBQ is unique because of the time it takes. Beyond the 18-hour start-to-finish procedure, there is a history there. You can literally taste the heritage of those before us. It is a uniquely American product, and beyond that, it binds us together. Maybe its weird to put much stock into something so mundane as food, but this is what Jesus did as well. He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard because I imagine he, better than any, understood the importance of food.
During Lent, Christians often give up some food item for forty days in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection at Easter. What one often finds, is that giving up food is often harder than they thought. While of course we need nourishment, we also thrive on more than bread alone. Food brings us together, gives rhythm to our lives, and provides fuel not only for our bodies but for our souls as well. Soul-food is precisely that, it nourishes us in a very spiritual way. Our faith is not some segregated existence where we pray on one end of the spectrum and eat on the other, but where the two become the same thing.
When Jesus appears to his friends after his Resurrection, he offers them words of wisdom but he does something else: he eats with them. He broils fish over an open flame on the coast and breaks bread in Emmaus. And it is in these acts that we see, smell, and taste the goodness of God. I imagine the reason I despise poor BBQ is not merely snobbery but because when we cease to care about the work of our hands and the product of our time, it leaves more than a bad taste in mouths but in our souls as well.
The Fast of Lent is to prepare us for the Feast of Easter, so that we may taste and see that the Lord is good.