"It was just like nothing else I've ever tasted. You know, it's burnt but it's not burnt, it's this amazing charred bark, then the super tender inside."
It's Australia Day when Jess Pryles Skypes in from Texas. It's quite coincidental, given Australia's national day (whether you agree with what it represents or not) is traditionally given over to all things beach, beer and barbecue — barbecuing being what Pryles is all about.
However, that's where the coincidence ends — for we've not arranged to chat on this particular day about the Australian way of barbecuing — far from it. This chat is focusing on American barbecue, Southern barbecue, Texas barbecue. "Yeah, we're talking smoked, not grilled, which is generally how Australians know barbecuing to be," she says with a smile.
"That awakened not just this love of barbecue, but a love for red meat in general that I just wasn't aware was always there."
Pryles, an Australian who's been travelling to Austin for the past seven years and who now resides there, is generally regarded as the Antipodean authority on Southern BBQ. She's not a chef, nor a journalist, but is someone whose love of all things smoked has evolved into a career. She writes a highly-trafficked blog along with regular columns in a variety of publications. She's an accredited Central Texas Barbecue Association and Kansas City Barbecue Society judge. She produces the annual Carnivores Ball. She's the co-founder of the Australasian Barbecue Alliance… It's fair to say she's a full-time carnivore.
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"It was as simple as girl meets rib, girl falls in love with rib, you know, that old story," she laughs on how her love affair with the smoking culture began. "It was really when I visited Texas for the first time and got to try my first beef rib… it was just like nothing else I've ever tasted. You know, it's burnt but it's not burnt, it's this amazing charred bark, then the super tender inside.
"I'd always loved eating meat, but that awakened not just this love of barbecue, but a love for red meat in general that I just wasn't aware was always there."
Barbecue and smoking culture has, in the past six or seven years, taken on a life of its own, spreading from its traditional homeland in the south of the US to all parts of the world. Indeed, low 'n' slow barbecue has become almost painfully hip — it's not uncommon at any of the many barbecue-related events around the country these days to be inundated by crowds of hillbilly-chic: checkered shirts and beards and trucker caps.
"I think there are a few reasons [why southern barbecue has taken off], first and foremost because it tastes great," Pryles opines. "The second reason, I think, is the craft element of it. Because the type of barbecue that has become popular — and it's important to note the difference here — there are some joints in America that effectively use something similar to ovens. But the guys who have become legendary, Aaron Franklin for example, they all use manual, wood-fired, non-technical smokers; it's really a craft — the meat is turned by hand, they're dirty, they're smoky.
"So just like we got into craft beer, or craft beard lotion or whatever, it's just caring more about smaller businesses producing items with more care by hand," she adds.
The rise in popularity over the past decade or so of things like craft beer, farmer's markets and even things like vinyl and folk music harken to people's need to simplify, to go back to things that originally were about care and love, things that offer comfort in their downhome-ness. It seems, as Pryles notes, it was only a matter of time before smoking culture became a part of that list.
Australia itself, despite its traditional way of barbecuing, has taken to the US version with fervour. The Australasian Barbecue Alliance, which only a few years ago was curating a small handful of events around the country, this year has more than 20 on its books; a testament to the culinary method's growth.
"When you walk through and you see the teams… sitting around, having a laugh, the competition is in pretty good spirit."
Next cab off the events rank is the inaugural Meatstock, running in Sydney in mid-February. Billed as 'The Music & Meat Festival', Meatstock is essentially a one-stop shop for anyone looking to get their fix of the variety of smoked meats that this culinary canon comprises — brisket, ribs, pulled pork, sausage. Add to that a cracking line-up of bands all based in the 'raucous roots' category, and you've got a weekend even the most casual of carnivores would embrace.
"[Meatstock] founder Jay Beaumont, who's also my co-founder of the Australasian Barbecue Alliance — he's just a meat fan who allowed himself to dream big — he founded BBQ Wars in Port Macquarie, which is the biggest event on the Australian calendar," Pryles explains. "He's a really great operator with a really great passion, and he wanted to bring that which we love to the biggest cities.
"I think it's really impressive that he's made [Meatstock] about everything as well," she goes on. "Celebrating the butchers too — the produce, the meat, the type of music that seems to be the soundtrack to the whole thing."
Meatstock is, to employ an overused term, epic. We're talking BBQ Wars (essentially an amateur BBQ-off); Beard Wars (15 amateur barbers, chosen via Instagram, going head-to-head on stage); Butcher Wars (59 butchers who have a set amount of time to break down half a saddle of pork and half a lamb — Pryles is a judge for this particular War), along with an expo showcasing the best in the culture's accompaniments — smokers, dry rubs, hot sauces, meat producers, clothing. Plus there'll be enough smoked meat, cold beer and American bourbon to satisfy everyone. Epic indeed.
"People really fall in love with the culture of it," Pryles says. "When you walk through and you see the teams… sitting around, having a laugh, the competition is in pretty good spirit. And it's one of the few culinary competitions that you're able to enter as an amateur," she goes on, referencing the BBQ Wars aspect. "Unless you're a CSA baker knocking out lamingtons for the Royal Show, there's nothing else, really. I mean, Masterchef is the closest as far as turning amateurs into chefs — these are guys who are just enthusiasts — most of them don't have a barbecue restaurant, most of them are just backyard cooks. And they're really proud of what they do."
The size and popularity of events like Meatstock are testament again to the popularity of this culinary art, although it remains to be seen if it sticks around outside of its native Carolina, Texas, Memphis and Kansas, or whether it's just a fad — albeit a reasonably long-running one.
"I definitely think it's permanent," Pryles asserts. "I think the fad exists at the restaurant level, and not so much restaurants opening up, but places that are suddenly adding a barbecue element to their menu, or places that suddenly use brisket, even though it may not be barbecued, because somehow they think brisket is a magical word.
"So I think that that will eventually drop off, just like you don't see as many cupcakes in cafes anymore," she adds with a laugh. "Certainly I think, though, we're only starting to see the popularity as far as backyard cooks being into it."