Food Fights and Culture Wars: A Secret History of Taste, by Tom Nealon, is a delightful book by any measure, but most of all from the viewpoint of aesthetics. I can’t imagine this book was at all cheap to produce, as it abounds with hiqh-quality color reproductions of art and historical advertisements, many of them courtesy of the British Library. The writing is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but enjoyably so, at least if you don’t mind irreverent references to cannibalism of “inadvertently delicious” corn-fed Aztec lower classes.
My favorite chapter from the book is on the history of barbecuing; here the tone diverges sharply from humorous to political. The contrast between traditional barbecuing (community affairs involving whole animals and fire pits) and the commercialized, modern version of restaurant take-out and backyard grilling, is placed in the context of dwindling freedom of assembly. Nealon points out that in many areas of the United States, at least, fire pits are forbidden or at least require a permit, and are generally frowned upon at public parks, although apparently—to my surprise, anyway—barbecuing used to be considered acceptable on public land.
Personally I hadn’t realized the distinction between “barbecuing” and “grilling”, or considered how neatly the backyard grill fits into a capitalist paradigm of individualized consumption, a co-opting of a once inexpensive and widely accessible form of community-building and social discourse. To the extent that barbecues can still be held today, they likely require the privilege of land ownership and the privilege of a permit. Which is to say, if you have the advantage of a place and permission to barbecue, you should pay heed to Nealon’s concluding paragraph:
It’s not the world’s biggest surprise that corporations and governments have been destroying barbecue culture to further nefarious agendas. No, it is as it should be: barbecue has been forced out of range. Attempts to co-opt and commodify only prove the point: humanity and barbecue need one another. It is up to us to exercise some self-control the next time we have a hankering for some ribs: to build a fire instead of ordering in, to dig a pit, invite our friends, acquaintances, and one or two enemies, and stir up a sauce, a marinade, and a rub. As our lives become ever more full of flickering lights, ephemeral sounds, and unmoored notions dancing in our peripheral vision, it becomes more important than ever to take a moment, a breath, a mouthful. Every day we are enshrouded in a digital chaos so complete that is has become a sort of order, and I submit that what it screams for, more than anything else, is a properly made pulled-pork sandwich. All you vegetarians out there, don’t think you are off the hook: catch yourself some root vegetables, perhaps a great woolly radish, a tremendous turnip or an outrageous rutabaga. Find yourself a pumpkin the size of a space hopper and barbecue some soup — but take it slowly. S-l-o-w-l-y.
I’d probably add that you should invite some random passerby, too. And perhaps consider barbecue-as-protest.