Wednesday, April 26, 2006

the Davos of barbeque

Screwed again by my own tardiness!

I'd timed it perfectly: I'd leave my office in Silicon Valley at exactly 8pm, dead-on to hear City Arts & Lectures -- R.W. Apple and Calvin Trillin in conversation. Yeah. That's right. I'd scrap my principles and listen to KQED, the middlebrow fare of the airwaves. But it was R.W. Apple and Calvin Trillin: how could I resist? Principles are frequently trumped by pleasure, especially among the weak. And I am weak. Apple and Trillin. They might say anything.

They might even talk about prawns. Three years ago or so, I read a piece in the New Yorker about R.W. Apple written by Calvin Trillin that recounted the following insider story:

On a Presidential visit Bill Clinton made to Africa, Apple had dinner one night in Kampala, Uganda, whose restaurant possibilities he had, of course, researched in some depth before leaving Washington. "We go to what Johnny has found out is the best Indian restaurant in the country," Maureen Dowd, who was in Apple's party that evening, told me. "We're the only ones in the restaurant. That would worry some people, but Johnny knows it's the right place because he's there." After tucking in his napkin, she went on, Apple said, in stentorian tones that seemed to be addressed to no one in particular, "No prawns at this altitude!" That remains a phrase that Apple watchers occasionally use to greet each other -- "No prawns at this altitude!"
This was an irresistable piece of reporting, because not long before, I'd heard my boss at the time (who reminded me quite a bit of R.W. Apple already) leaning over his admin's desk as she called in a lunch order for him at a local Chinese restaurant and shouting, "NO PRAWNS! NO PRAWNS IN THAT DISH!" He did not wrest the phone from her hands to order the food himself; instead he shouted "NO PRAWNS!" His voice was most certainly audible to the person at the other end of the phone line. It sounded like he was choosing food for a meeting, but when I heard him add, "one order of rice," I knew the truth: all these dishes, some plus prawns, some sans prawns, all modified in subtle ways, were for him. It was his own lunch that he was so passionate about. Of course.

So -- without knowing the Apple lore -- I was already steeped in the appropriate terminology:


What I heard of the conversation on the radio, which to my frustration is not available in the audio archives, did not tilt toward crustaceans, but rather was about Southern cooking, which is a fine topic. Especially when they got to barbeque.

Paul Jones has already told me that emotions run high when it comes to barbeque in the South. It's brother-against-brother when it comes to the vinegar question, not to mention what kind of meat is best. In Texas, it's all with the brisket; in Memphis, it's all with that pulled pork. In North Carolina, the pig prevails as well. In California, we are ignorant of the ways of the Q and might even sanction the meat that borders on that featheriest of vegetables, chicken.

Mssrs. Apple and Trillin had apparently attended what they referred to as the Davos of barbeque in Oxford, Mississippi, the Southern Foodways Symposium. Better than Davos, in fact, Mr. Apple opined, because there are no boring investment bankers. Investment bankers don't know squat about barbeque.

I'm intrigued by this conference. I'm used to attending conferences with paper titles like A Hierarchical, HMM-based Automatic Evaluation of OCR Accuracy for a Digital Library of Books. But last year's Southern Foodways Symposium featured papers with titles like Parsing a Moon Pie: Commercial Southern Sweets and A Short History of Sweet Tea. The presenter of the second paper shares a name with my grad advisor; I can't help but wonder if Fred found a clandestine second career. In any case, this sounds like a conference well worth attending.

From the sound of it, the year R.W. Apple and C. Trillin attended was 2002, a year with the symposium theme, Barbecue: Smoke, Sauce and History. I see that Calvin Trillin is listed as a speaker, but R.W. Apple is not. That figures; it's rude to talk with your mouth full. There's a session, Aberrant Barbecue Supper, which most certainly featured a prawn or two. The conference highlight was apparently a paper beguilingly titled, “We Didn’t Know From Fatback:” A Southern Jewish Perspective on Barbecue. Damn! This looks fabulous. Looks to be cheap too, $185 to register.

Where can I sign up for 2006? They haven't announced a theme yet, but I'm sure I'll leave Oxford satiated. And perhaps with some new contributions for a special issue of Lunch.



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