As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists. ~Joan Gussow

Can Vegan Barbecue Exist?

Traditional TX BBQ @ Salt Like, Driftwood, TX

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?

Francis Mallmann's Chimicurri Sauce I made (garlic, flat-leaf parsley, fresh oregano, red pepper flakes, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt)

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?

Cellar with Parmigiano Reggiano, Italy

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?


4 responses

  1. I love this post and the corresponding conversation on Facebook. I’m a full supporter of veganism, but I think you are right on this one.

    February 28, 2012 at 2:34 pm

  2. Jay crow

    It is the process of barbecuing which makes something “barbecued”, and thus, “barbecue”….so therefore….whatever has undergone the PROCESS of barbecueing has been barbequed. Just as something that has undergone the PROCESS of baking has been baked. Of course there can be vegan barbecue, it is the PROCESS of barbequing which creates the barbecue, not the product which is barbequed. People from the midwest think that the south’s chili is not really chili because it has beans in it and up north, chili just has meat…so is southern chili not chili? It is the process which makes both chili.

    August 27, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    • Thanks for your comment, Jay, however I stand by my premise that bbq not just a process but a cultural identity at which the center-point is meat. Sure you can bbq a shoe, but does that make it bbq (and would anyone want to eat it)? And as I illustrate above, I think some food just doesn’t need to be changed to fit a certain taste, otherwise the entire identity is lost.

      August 27, 2012 at 2:17 pm

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