Why we should all celebrate bad British barbecues

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Like Shrek’s onion, British barbecue has many layers. As the nation’s appetites have grown beyond the boundaries of soggy cod and pie, so has our recognition of the awesome potential of cooking with fire. Obviously, the things that make barbecue brilliant are not new inventions. But the appreciation of the magical mixture of meat and smoke is certainly more widespread as we’ve all become more food-savvy. 

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Buried within the layers of the barbecue onion are both arbitrarily “good” and “bad” ingredients. Depending on who you ask, the “good” might include the smouldering mangal ocakbasis of Green Lanes and Stoke Newington, or the hidden tandoors tucked away in Brick Lane backrooms. It might also refer to the many dozens of neck-beard heavy, hickory-smoked bro-becuers, whose joints are simultaneously slightly irritating and seriously delicious. What’s “good”, after all, is an entirely personal preference.

But, for every beautifully blackened burnt end and expertly roasted lamb chop, there are some members of the British barbecue family that everyone agrees are a bit rubbish. No group get together from mid-June onwards, for instance, is complete without flaccid packets of value sausages, each the colour of an anaemic finger, or vegetable kebabs so tasteless they make cucumber water look like sex on the beach. On the surface, these less fashionable facets of British barbecuing are easy to dismiss. That would be a mistake. 

It’s true that the tradition of bad British barbecues can leave a lot to be desired. Anyone who has ever been offered a plate of assorted pork medallions, each providing a new and interesting interpretation of “cooked through”, knows that the food available is often a questionably prepared melange of bland, burnt and basically raw. Franklin Barbecue brisket it invariably is not. 

There is another uniquely British factor in our barbecue equation, namely, the weather. Every summer, several important life lessons are learned up and down the country as young children watch their parents struggle to set fire to something in horizontal sheet rain. These teachings range from new and colourful language to the fundamental truth that no amount of matches can ignite a submerged log. The latter of these will inevitably be forgotten when the next generation starts hosting their own summer parties, and so the cycle begins again.

Watch Tom make some seriously tasty Meatball Subs from Twisted: A Cookbook:

But, behind the medley of rare chicken breasts and sodden ribeyes, there is a greater truth in the British tradition about what actually makes all barbecue great. Whether you’re eating like a king at Rodney Scott’s in South Carolina or like a soggy peasant at your uncle’s 50th in Slough, what unifies legendary joints and back garden cookouts is the sense of community and occasion. 

By their nature, all barbecues need to be eaten by as many people as possible. There’s no point roasting a whole hog or three packets of pre-sauced ribs if you’re hoping to enjoy a romantic meal for two. When it comes to any mass meat cookery, sharing really is caring. This then makes the event itself just as important as the food you are eating. 

Say what you like about the merits of burned Cumberlands, but barbecues are always about bringing people together. The summer meals we remember the most aren’t necessarily the ones where we had to wait months for a reservation - they’re the ones where mum dropped a mayo-heavy potato salad on grandma, or when dad took two hours to cook a solitary chicken wing. That these aren’t necessarily examples of brilliant cooking is beside the point. 

In 2020, the community spirit of bad British barbecue is arguably more important than ever. As lockdown restrictions began to ease, it was gatherings in gardens and parks that provided relief for thousands of people across the country. The menus were irrelevant. Just being together, around a barbecue, was more than enough to start salvaging summer.  

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As we’ve all been forced to spend more time indoors, it’s the moments that we would usually have spent together that we are missing the most. Not being able to take a trip to Smokestak or Temper is bad. Missing the chance to get drunk in a garden as our nearest and dearest struggle with a selection of lamb kofte skewers is far worse. It’s always been easy to laugh at some of our barbecue habits. What we wouldn’t now give for regular rain-soaked rump steaks.

Spice up your next special occasion with the “Barbecue” section of Twisted: A Cookbook. Pre-order your copy here.