Doubling down

BBQ, Bradford and a 'mind-blowing surprise' from the Guardian

I’ve been reading a lot about BBQ, as one does.

Not cookbooks (well, some cookbooks), but the history / culture / lore of my favourite cuisine. Like all rabbit holes, this one started with curiosity and a touch of guilt. After lambasting that mediocre BBQ romance, I started thinking: Who am I to ‘gatekeep’ BBQ? What do I even know?!

Obviously I wasn’t going to take the easy option and stop gatekeeping, so the only alternative was to start knowing. Time to double-down on BBQ.

Two of the books on this meaty topic that I’ve particularly enjoyed are John Shelton Reed’s On Barbecue and Daniel Vaughn’s The Prophets of Smoked Meat. The former is a collection of essays from an academic-turned-foodie-turned-academic-of-food. He’s got a wry sense of humour, a slightly problematic turn of phrase, and an excellent thematic framework for conceptualising BBQ as an expression (or derivative) of place. Vaughn, and photographer Nicholas McWhirter, bring BBQ-as-place-made to life with their incredible, Quixotic journey across Texas. I don’t know how they’re both alive, honestly, but their tour of hundreds of BBQ joints is an impressive, glorious thing. It is not about the restaurant reviews, but the aggregate thereof: they identify regional nuance and pull together the ‘golden threads’ of a seemingly fragmented BBQ culture. It is a gorgeous book, and a really rich one.

(Fun fact: The Prophets of Smoked Meat was the first book published by Anthony Bourdain’s brief and glorious literary imprint.)

On a related note, I’m also doing the very odd thing of reading old cookbooks (ohmygodI’mmiddleaged). Recipes are nice, but, as I’ve written before, but I don’t tend to use them. I’m more interested in ‘tactics’ than formulas when it comes to cooking. For BBQ, especially, there’s a lot to be said for the cookbooks. They’re generally pretty vibes-driven: e.g. ‘here’s an animal and some sauce and then, eight hours later, yummy happened’. There’s an understanding of the variable contexts in which BBQ is produced. Every BBQ and BBQer is a unique combination of a quirky smoker, unpredictable weather, distinct materials and personal nuance. Add in the strong oral tradition, and you get cookbooks that are less (‘step 1… step 20… BBQ!’ and more ‘add some salt when you feel like it’).

There are also grilling-which-is-very-nice-but-not-BBQ cookbooks for virtually every culture, which I enjoy because putting meat on fires is a truly global phenomenon, and there’s a lot to learn from how everyone else does it. I’ve been reading up on kebabs and jerk and even Worcestershire Sauce #sponcon.

I also recently stumbled on a self-pub cookbook from Idaho where the author mixed her recipes for venison jerky with a poetry expressing her disappointment in Bill Clinton. I think it was made with The Print Shop, and is, on many levels, a true historical artifact.

Other reading:

Takeaway by Angela Hui. Hui writes about her childhood growing up behind the counter of the family restaurant - the ubiquitous Chinese takeaway - in rural Wales. It is a coming of age story, and also a look at race in contemporary Britain and also a strong view on how food connects us across generations and both within and across cultures. Phew. That’s a mouthful. There are parts of it that are infuriating: the casual racism, the domestic struggles, the inter-generational conflict. But this is ultimately a book about love, and how food can - if you’ll forgive the twee nature of the statement - be a means of communicating when words won’t or can’t do.

What We Really Do All Day by Jonathan Gershuny (et al). I wanted this to be a little more than it was. Don’t get me wrong: a deep dive into the largest-ever study of how we spend our time is pretty juicy stuff. But the bulk of the book is hard to read charts (somiddleaged) and then words, describing those charts. There are a lot of ‘fun facts’ in there - around how women’s time labouring has changed (paid and unpaid), or even about dining habits based on class and occupation - but these only came out when the authors really started to mine into the data, or, more importantly, segment it. But the general picture was almost too big. There’s also the elephant in the room, in that this was all pre-Covid data collection. I suspect the next round of the survey will have some more surprising changes to reveal.

me, here

I’m writing this from Bradford (hi!), where I’m attending the Bradford Literary Festival. I harp on and on about how it is my favourite event of the year, but, hey, guess what? It is. Here’s what I like:

  • It is a city-wide thing. At least, a city-centre-wide thing. But from the moment you step off the train, you’re seeing BLF stuff - or even on to the train, thanks to a clever National Rail partnership). The festival itself takes over the park in the middle of Bradford’s city centre. Events are scattered in a walkable-radius around the centre: stickered footpaths lead you to talks in bookstores or theatres or classrooms or city hall. (Last year, I chaired a heated debate about populism in a council chamber that looked straight out of Game of Thrones.)

  • There’s a ‘salon’ atmosphere. I’m sorry, that’s a horrendously wanky thing to say. But there are a lot of guests of and at the festival - authors, but also academics, journalists, influencers, artists, performers, musicians, poets, whatever. Yesterday I chaired a ‘roundtable’ on AI in the culture sector that involved professors and students, global leaders in developing machine learning applications, an actor, a cardiologist, a woman with a super-cool knitting company, and a guy admitted he only knew anything about the topic from a show he’d watched on TV (his contributions were spot on). It was fabulous: everyone was respectful, wise, and a little bit funny, and we all left a little smarter and happier. Bradford rolls out the Northern hospitality and makes sure that everyone is well-fed and well-treated. But, BLF does so collectively - guests are encouraged to spend time together, away from the stage. I will inevitably wind up having a curry and a chat with some of the most interesting people.

  • The audiences are terrific. BLF is about inclusivity, and in a classic ‘brands are what you do, not what you say’ demonstration, the festival has an ‘ethical ticketing policy’ that means that, essentially, no one is financially barred from access to arts and culture (or cyberpunk). I’ve been to a lot of literary events. A lot of literary events. And Bradford is consistently and (seemingly) effortlessly the most representative of the amazing diversity present in modern Britain. (Is it actually effortless? Of course not. From day one, it has been built around inclusivity. But it amazing what happens when that’s an actual pillar of your strategy and not a shiny bolt-on after a hideous staff survey.)

  • I really like the food.

Anyway, I’m here for a few days, participating in some panels and watching a lot more. See you around.

me, elsewhere

A highlight of the week was The Big Book of Cyberpunk receiving a lovely review in the Guardian, with kind words from the great Lisa Tuttle. Tuttle called the anthology “a huge, eye-opening, mind-blowing surprise”, as well as saying other very nice things. Consider my own mind-blown.

I’ve been doing this for long enough to be very jaded and thick-skinned about things, and… who am I kidding? This had me blushing for days. Validation is wonderful.

On the other end of the spectrum, but equally as wonderful: some extremely intrepid/dedicated/foolish readers have been doing a week-by-week read-along and discussion of The Big Book of Cyberpunk. I’m sorry to say that they’ve concluded this Herculean task. Again, jaded/thick-skinned/etc, but… when you put a book out into the wild, you’re basically catapulting it into the void. There’s nothing worse than silence.

These kind folks have been, in many ways, an emotional lifeline. I always knew that someone, somewhere was reading the book and (better yet!) chatting about it. It meant a lot to me: thank you.

Anyway, if you want a book liked by both Reddit and the Guardian, I’ve got one for you!

what I’m reading (online)

How libraries provide so much more than books. A lovely, heart-warming long read about the role that libraries play for their communities in Britain, as they become de facto co-working space, nurseries, community centres, youth clubs and yoga studios. They’re stepping up to fill the gap in social and community services. I’m reminded (as I write about frequently) of Poverty Safari, and its authors plea that libraries just remain libraries. Recently, at a workshop in Barcelona, I made the same point: we need to let our services focus on what those services are there to deliver, and beware of ‘scope creep’. It is genuinely great that libraries are stepping up in this way, librarians are real life superheroes. It’d be greater if they didn’t have to do all of this - because the other spaces that were meant do be providing these services were still a) accessible, b) funded, or c) existing.

Speaking of public services, this is a good use of Google Maps. As a parent of a small child, a London one, please? (Shout out to my cousin for coining The Peanut Rule: the more disgusting a bathroom, the more likely it is that your child will need to use it. Kansas Citians will recognise that reference.)

Meanwhile, ‘mega drive-throughs’ are a thing, and, thanks, I hate it.

On the flip side of the coin, I am late to the tactical urbanism party, but I think I love it. I was lucky enough to go on a guided tour of Barcelona’s superblocks recently, and it was amazing to see the impact of seemingly-tiny changes in neighbourhood-level planning. (What Barcelona is also doing and/or has always done around both climate adaptation and creating public spaces is fantastic. I have a major crush on the city.)

Who plays games in America? (29% are over 50 years old!)

I had the pleasure of listening to Lemn Sissay open the festival yesterday, and golly:

What did I witness last night?"
Said a shocked & bowing moon
"We must stand for light"
said the sun "and soon"

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