Can Vegan Barbecue Exist?
This whole notion started when a conversation surfaced on a food blogging Facebook group I am a part of. The complaint was that there was no good vegan barbecue in town [Austin, TX]. Upon reading it, I thought to myself, “Well, honestly, vegan barbecue is an oxymoron, is it not?” The entire concept behind barbecue is smoking and cooking a large piece of animal flesh for hours over a wood-based fire to make it tender and then mix it with region-specific flavors. This is different from grilling which often uses charcoal or gas to cook meat or vegetables in a relatively short amount of time.
The more I thought about it, the more I became perturbed by the idea of vegan barbecue. I know there are many vegan and vegetarian takes on food with meat. But is there a point at which the food created to serve a vegan/vegetarian audience no longer qualifies it to be in that category? I think barbecue is an excellent example because the technique used to make barbecue—smoke, heat, wood and time—would do something completely different, to say, a piece of tempeh or a mushroom. So can vegan barbecue exist?
I argue that no, it cannot exist because the main ingredient (and therefore the tradition) would not be present. Famous Argentine/Uruguayan Chef, Francis Mallmann, hits the nail on the head in his book, Seven Fires: Grilling the Argentine Way. He writes the following in reference to chimichurri sauce:
“At a Latin American themed James Beard Award evening in NYC, I couldn’t believe what some of the chefs had done with it: mango, strawberries, mint! I was so sad, I wanted to crawl inside my oven. Invention is fine, but you have to stay true to the original idea.”
Grilling a piece of tofu or smothering store-bought barbecue sauce over soy crumbles is not staying true to the original idea of slow-cooked-animal-flesh-over-burning-wood. It’s simply not barbeque. Do we ever think that maybe not all dishes should be made to fit a certain perimeter or culture?
So beyond technique, this is really getting at semantics. What does barbecue mean? Does it just mean throwing sauce on something? I’m definitely not the only person who has debated these “semantics.” Food labeling is incredibly strict around the world in order to protect certain varieties of products and food. Take, for example, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Per Italian law, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese can only be made in defined northern regions in Italy. Furthermore, the government dictates the types of inputs and the methods used to make the cheese. What this does is protect the intellectual and cultural property of traditional foods. I personally am a fan of this as more and more of our food supply becomes monopolized and homogenized.
I am not aware of a government-sanctioned definition for barbeque. And I am not about to create a campaign for one. But, I do find it fascinating to think about the context in which our food is marketed and even created. Does it exist as we know it? Should it?