Get a 'cue
Canada, it's time to learn about barbecue – not grilling, but smoky, slow-cooked, succulent barbecue.
Corey Mintz explains why it's so hard for us to understand, and introduces a new wave of chefs trying to change that
When John Lattuca opened his Montreal smokehouse last year he tried to be as literal as possible with the name. Some of Canada's modern barbecue restaurants get cute with theirs – Calgary's The Palomino, Barque in Toronto, Boneheads in Halifax – but he went with, simply, Lattuca Barbecue.
Yet customers still come in and expect him to cook them a hamburger. "We don't grill. We barbecue," Lattuca says, explaining that this is a uniquely Canadian mix-up. "There's a problem with the definition of barbecue."
In the United States, using a gas grill to cook burgers or steaks is called grilling, or "grilling out." Southerners, especially, reserve the term "barbecuing" for the practice of cooking for a long time at a low temperature, using smoke from a wood fire.
Here in Canada, it's the rare diner who knows to appreciate the differences between Lattuca's Texas-style brisket (self-basted, salt-and-pepper crusted), North Carolina-style pulled pork (doused in vinegar-based barbecue sauce) and Kansas-style ribs (tomato- and molasses-based sauce). Canada is a country of grillers, confusing the smoky perfume, melting fat and gentle pull-apart tug of carefully barbecued meat with hot dogs and hamburgers thrown on the grill.
Barbecue is so entrenched in Southern U.S. cuisine partly because of history and the passing down of techniques through the generations, and partly because of climate (who's interested in babysitting a smoker in the snow?). But things are starting to change on this side of the border. Kick-started by food television and the rise of a competition circuit, barbecue has been gaining fans here over the past decade. Home cooks are graduating from gas grills to charcoal grills to smokers, while a new crop of smoke-obsessed Canadian chefs is giving diners a taste for the real stuff.
You can see this increased interest on the retail scene, says Duff Dixon, who opened the store Barbecue World 30 years ago. He now has three outdoor-cooking-hardware stores in Vaughan, Whitby and Kanata, Ont., stocked with fuel, barbecues and smokers. The "charcoal room" at his flagship location started at 400 square feet then doubled in size before spilling out into the main showroom.
On the restaurant side, Lattuca is part of a movement that includes Dixie's BBQ in Vancouver and Calgary's Hayden Block, both of which opened last year. At Toronto's Adamson Barbecue, enthusiastic customers line up for lunch-only service, and the day's 1,000 pounds of meat often sells out. Still, owner Adam Skelly regularly has to deal with customer confusion.
"Our most-heard complaint is about selling out," Skelly says. "People post on review sites how disappointed they are that we sell out. 'Why don't they just make more meat?' I always laugh at that. Do they really think I'm not trying to sell more meat?" His boilerplate e-mail response to customer complaints explains that everything is made fresh each day, that the restaurant never serves leftovers, and that his daily production estimates, determined by sales history, aren't always exact.
It's sort of strange that Canadians don't understand barbecue, since the country has no shortage of the natural resources required to make it (namely, wood and meat).
There are two main reasons that long, slow meat-smoking isn't part of the culinary culture here.
The first is history. "These guys learned how to cook from their granddads. And their granddads learned to cook from their granddads," says Lattuca about his barbecue teachers, the fellow cooks he met while travelling the competition circuit from 2009 to 2012. Canadians just don't have those granddads (or grandmas), because while our country has a lot in common with the United States, our history is still different.
In Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, South Carolinian Robert Moss charts the rise of barbecue in the Southern United States from the 16th century. It made a transition into restaurants in the early 20th century, took a back seat to cheap fast food in the 1970s and experienced a rebirth toward the end of the 20th century.
Moss's take is that barbecue is a merging of European, Indigenous and African foodways on the east coast of what is now the United States."It's a little fuzzy exactly how [it happened]," Moss said. "There's just not enough evidence to get the full picture. We don't start getting into any documentary evidence until the 18th or 19th century."
But Michael Twitty doesn't buy the fuzziness. He's the author of the soon-to-be-published The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South. Twitty concurs that the cooking style spread south from Virginia all the way west to California, with barbecues evolving into a premier community event, a way for people to gather outdoors, a place for politicians to court votes.
But he disagrees that the history of barbecue is untraceable, and claims it as the creative product of enslaved Africans. "Robert is a great guy. His book is very thorough," Twitty says. "But it's not the history of black people and barbecue. It's the history of white men and barbecue."
Twitty cites the recent discovery of barbecue pits within the slave quarters of former president James Madison's plantation, Montpelier, as evidence, and cautions against equating the lack of a written record with the lack of a historical record.
"How can you document, on paper, the history of a people who were denied the ability to record their own history?" Twitty says. "We were the only people forbidden, on pain of death, for picking up a book or piece of paper. Reading and writing could get you sold, or separated from your family. So you have to go by different means to document our culinary journey."
Viewing barbecue as food created by enslaved African-Americans explains why it's not prominent in Canada. In 1834, the enslaved population here was an estimated 4,200 people, about one-third of African origin, the other two-thirds Indigenous. The United States, according to the 1860 census, had close to four million people enslaved, the vast majority of them Africans or their descendants.
The other reason that we weren't early adopters of barbecue is climate. In America, barbecue is usually cooked, served and eaten outdoors. But in Canada, even if customers were willing to line up in the snow, half the year is too cold to be outside fidgeting with a wood fire for 12 hours.
The centre of the dining trend in the United States is the widely celebrated Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Tex. – its owner, Aaron Franklin "made barbecue sexy," according to Lattuca. Part of the culture is long lineups for limited quantities of meat – which Moss attributes to marketing as much as freshness.
I visited Franklin in July, 2015, arriving two hours before opening only to be told that they were already presold out. Fans at the line's front thought nothing of spending hours sitting outside on folding chairs, waiting for their barbecue fix.
Many chefs are taking inspiration from barbecue joints in central Texas, where food is served in a cafeteria setting and meats are weighed by the pound and plopped onto trays lined with butcher paper. It's served that way at Dixie's in Vancouver, where the smoker is located inside the restaurant, so cooks can control the temperature. "Even with it inside, right now we're having this insane Vancouver cold snap," co-owner Christina Cottell said. "So even now the boys are having to come an hour earlier to fire up the live wood smoker, because it takes that much longer to get it up to temperature."
Cottell describes many of the same customer complaints as Skelly and Lattuca: a confusion between barbecue and grilling; price critiques that don't account for the current cost of meat, and an obsession with sickly-sweet sauce as opposed to the tangier U.S. styles.
Rather than repeat herself over and over each day, she mounts placards at each table that explain the other styles of southern barbecue, and where in Vancouver customers can find them.
With every slice of brisket served from Vancouver to Halifax, with every Canadian who makes the pilgrimage to the south, our attitudes are changing. And the upside to our lack of connective history is that we're under no obligation to be regional loyalists. No one is fiercely defensive over "real Alberta barbecue" or "real New Brunswick barbecue." Chefs can take the best of every style and innovate.
Franklin himself says he still has to explain wait times to customers. "My advice to Canadians: keep trying to make good barbecue. And keep taking the time to patiently and thoroughly explain why it is important," he said in an e-mail.
"Sooner or later, they will come around."