One of the highlights of this year’s South by Southwest festival, which ends Sunday, was the presence of Texas barbecue everywhere, even more than usual for this ’cue-hungry town.
Feeling a bit peckish while waiting in line for the opening-night film “Song to Song”? A guy with an aluminum tray of free grilled meats from Black’s BBQ was there to quell the pangs. Stuck in the Austin Convention Center all day? There was barbecue at the ready among the food options on the first floor. There was even a panel devoted to the topic, “Fear and Loathing on the Barbecue Trail.”
Of course, much of the brouhaha over barbecue had to do with the world premiere of the documentary simply called “Barbecue,” with four screenings at the festival, including one involving a trip to the small town of Taylor on Friday, where patrons will also visit that city’s Louie Mueller Barbecue, one of the joints featured in the film.
For New York-based Australian documentary director Matthew Salleh and his partner Rose Tucker, it represents coming full circle. The idea of making a film about barbecue around the world was hatched a few years ago as they were on a road trip from Las Vegas to New Orleans. Along the way, they stopped in Central Texas, where they fell in love with Texas barbecue.
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“We always have the camera in the back of the car and we just stopped and started talking to pitmasters in the area,” he said recently during an interview at the Austin Convention Center. “That’s what later inspired us to continue the journey around the world.”
A short subject film, “Central Texas Barbecue,” followed in 2014, but that was just a warmup for “Barbecue,” a globe-trotting endeavor covering 12 countries where grilled meats form an integral part of the culture. They took nine months to venture to the U.S. (Texas), Mongolia, Mexico, Uruguay, South Africa, Japan, Armenia, Australia, New Zealand, The Philippines, Sweden, and even a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.
The idea isn’t to proclaim how wonderful barbecue is or judge which style is best. Instead, it’s to show how the combination of flame and flesh has long been symbolic of community and bonding. With its lush score and message of worldly inclusion, the film upends expectations some might have about a film about food preparation. “Barbecue” is less Food Network and more Nat Geo, less “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and more “Koyaanisqatsi,” the groundbreaking, impressionistic 1982 film about how lives are lived around the world.
That’s what struck them when they first chatted with Central Texas pitmasters.
“We spoke to these guys, and their passion for their craft and their thoughts on how they fit into their community,” Salleh explained. “They sort of saw these barbecue joints not only as a link to the past — a lot of these places are fourth or fifth generation — but also [as a way] for people to gather. They had this big function in the community.
“It was a very interesting way to look at things, and [we wondered] what would it be like to look at other barbecue cultures around the world, and what we found was — just in the research phase of it — practically every place in the world, cooked meat over fire in some way or other is a culturally traditional way to bring people together. Whenever the weather is good, and there’s a reason to celebrate, that’s when you put meat on fire.”
Two of the biggest shocks for Salleh on his ’cue crawl were chilly Sweden (where many people carry portable grills in their cars for impromptu gatherings in parks on relatively rare sunny, warm days) and the Syrian refugee camp (where one man’s shawarma grill acts as a meeting place). The latter, he noted, said a lot “about the determination they have to try and create something normal in that crazy world they have to live in.”
“Barbecue” doesn’t yet have a distributor, but that seems a given considering the interest the film generated here.
So far, Salleh says, he has yet to hear from angry vegans or vegetarians, saying there were several who worked on the film who recognized the historical importance of grilling meat even if they don’t do it themselves.
Similarly, with Texas representing the U.S. in the film, he has not gotten an earful from angry partisans of Kansas City or Carolina ’cue. “We could have made this whole film about American barbecue. Rather than try to spread ourselves thin, we decided to focus purely on Texas,” he said and then laughed, “and we’re ready to be told off for that.”