As if to prove one of the points I just made about the popularity of food lists, last week an actual food-list scandal occurred. A Fox News list of the “most influential BBQ pitmasters and personalities” came in for grief when someone who was actually on the list, Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, noticed that while barbecue is noted for its rich heritage in the African-American community (you could make a movie about the way barbecue’s history intersects with African-American history in Chicago), the list was as white as a plate of cream cheese sandwiches at a D.A.R. tea. “Aha!” shouted everyone for whom Fox News is a joint venture between Charles Koch and Satan. “Proof that Fox News is racist!”
Well, it could well be, though as a maker of lists I’m inclined to go with the simpler explanation, which is that the person who was assigned to compile the list didn’t know much about barbecue. But the fact is that the figures in the barbecue world who know how to market themselves nationwide are nearly all white. I’ve interviewed three of the people or groups represented on the list—Mike and Amy Mills of 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro, Illinois; Myron Mixon; and the late Bobby Mueller of Louie Mueller’s in Taylor, Texas—and they’re all quite media savvy in addition to being figures of legitimate prominence in the field.
Compare the Millses—who have joint ventures with Danny Meyer in New York and run a barbecue consulting firm that attracts entrepreneurs from around the world to downstate Murphysboro to learn the business—to North Carolina pit master Ed Mitchell, one of the African-American figures who’s frequently mentioned as an overlooked black barbecue star, and who just closed his third restaurant in a row. By all accounts he’s a phenomenal pit master, but he doesn’t compare as a businessman and self-marketer. While that may not matter if you’re talking the artistry of barbecue greats, it does mean he leaves less of a trail online for the freelance writer who’s trying to quickly bone up on the field under deadline and only finds the pit masters with books, lines of sauces, and TV appearances on their resumés.
The fact is, I can’t really think of a barbecue city where black pit masters dominate the food and media scene for the tourist trade. Arthur Bryant’s and Gates did at one time in Kansas City (Vaughn’s suggestion, Henry Perry, was the original owner of what became Bryant’s, by the way), but where Bryant’s once had lines out the door, today you associate that with white-owned Joe’s Kansas City (formerly Oklahoma Joe’s). In most cities African-American barbecue is still for the intrepid willing to travel to off-the-beaten-path parts of town to find the real thing, or at least what they imagine that is. I’d give you a personal head-to-head comparison of black and white barbecue in Kansas City, but the last time I was there, I spent ten minutes in the long line at Joe’s before saying screw it and walking right into L.C.’s BBQ (for my third visit).
Of course, that’s a problem that a good list should be trying to correct, not repeat. We come back to one of my original points, which is that just because someone made a list, doesn’t mean they know jack about the field they’re pontificating about. If you’re looking at somebody’s list, the first thing to do is judge if it’s the most obvious group of names in the field or if it has some quirks that suggest someone who knows his stuff well enough to include a few left-field choices. In other words, before you listen to a list’s judgments, make your own judgments about how they got there.