Dallas Isn't a Barbecue Town (Ready, Aim, Fire...)

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City of Ate readers earlier this week didn't take kindly to my saying that "barbecue isn't very good in Dallas," suggesting my assertion must mean I'm an agoraphobic Californian.

Wrong on both counts, but their ire brings up an interesting question: What constitutes a barbecue town? Do a few good barbecue joints automatically make a city's barbecue scene "very good"?

I asked someone who ought to know: Robin Bivens, executive director of the Lexington, North Carolina, Tourism Authority.

Even fans of eastern North Carolina barbecue wouldn't dispute Lexington's status as a serious barbecue city. Lexington is home to more than 20 barbecue restaurants, which works out to one barbecue restaurant for every 1,000 people. For Dallas to approach that ratio, more than half of the county's restaurants would have to switch to an all-barbecue menu.

Lexington also hosts a yearly barbecue festival, which Bivens takes care to note isn't a cook-off: It's a celebration of smoked swine, and last weekend 200,000 people showed up for it.

"We think that Lexington is a barbecue town because of our rich heritage in barbecue," Bivens says. "It's the history."

Barbecue fever seized Lexington in 1919, when Sid Weaver set up a pork shoulder tent near the courthouse. Jess Swicegood opened a competing tent, and the pit masters soon after built permanent structures where they began apprenticing young men in their trade. As John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed wrote in Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, "In 2006, at least eighteen of twenty-two places in Lexington and vicinity were, or had been, run by someone who had worked for someone who had worked for someone...who had worked for one of the founding fathers."

So can a city without a century's worth of barbecue history ever be considered a barbecue town? Bivens -- who's understandably reluctant to give away the secret formula for becoming a barbecue city -- is sticking by her longitudinal theory, but Lexington's story suggests true barbecue cities have a few other defining characteristics.

First, barbecue cities are home to knowledgeable barbecue eaters. It's a chicken-and-egg thing, of course, but folks in Lexington are strikingly sophisticated on all smoked meat matters. Even the youngest aficionados specify which part of the shoulder they'd prefer and how coarsely they'd like it chopped.

Second, barbecue cities are conservative. Not at the polls, necessarily, but at the pits: They won't stand for fancy gas-fired contraptions or any other deviation from the low-and-slow tradition. Nobody in Lexington would dare slather grilled meat in vinegar dip and call it barbecue.

Finally, barbecue cities are places where people eat barbecue. Constantly.

"Oh, I'd say most people here eat barbecue as many as three to four times a week," Bivens says. "At any of these restaurants during lunch, it's always packed. People will go at least twice for lunch, and sometimes at night too."

Dallas has a few excellent barbecue joints. Pecan Lodge is terrific, and Tim Byres is doing some very interesting nouvelle 'cue at Smoke. I haven't yet been to Meshack's in Garland, but my friend Daniel Vaughn of the Full Custom Gospel Barbecue blog assures me it's wonderful.

Still, that doesn't mean barbecue is very good in Dallas, any more than the presence of a few former Super Bowl champs means everyone in town knows how to play football. There's way too much bad barbecue here -- and people willing to eat it -- to justify believing barbecue's very good in Dallas.

Bivens is too polite to weigh in on Dallas' position in the barbecue universe.

"I can't say why other towns think they're barbecue towns, because we know we are," she says.

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