If Alanis Morissette re-wrote her hit song “Ironic” today, she might include a line about buying an Arby’s smoked brisket sandwich in the middle of Texas, a state with just shy of two thousand barbecue joints that serve sandwiches stuffed with smoked meat. It’s like putting one of those Wonder Bread outlets next to a patisserie in Paris or setting up a self-serve ice machine in Greenland. It just doesn’t bring anything to the table. But of course, I bought one anyway.
Over the past week I’ve eaten through the “barbecue” menus of several fast-food restaurants. When I first contemplated eating barbecue at Burger King or Subway I dismissed the idea as useful only for comedic value. Then Arby’s released a smoked brisket sandwich. The marketing campaign seemed like an honest attempt to convince us that we could be comfortable in the authenticity of this new menu item. Instead of resting on my assumptions, I decided I would have to taste these barbecue spin-offs..
Well folks, it won’t surprise you that they get a collective “don’t bother” from me.
Arby’s isn’t the first fast food chain to—literally—cheapen barbecue. We all know about the McRib, first introduced by McDonald’s in 1982. Since McDonald’s originally served barbecue sandwiches before burgers, you might be able to chalk this one up to a misplaced homage to the past. Subway has also been selling a BBQ Pulled Pork sandwich for two years, Burger King launched a large barbecue menu this summer and Sonic just started offering chopped brisket as a burger topping. Barbecue’s popularity is through the roof, so these places have pounced on a hot item. I guess that’s capitalism, but it must sting folks from North Carolina to have their state’s long barbecue tradition narrowed down to a few slices of bacon and a beige, vaguely sweet sauce. This is what’s added to a Whopper to make it a “Carolina BBQ Whopper”. That a diner in Peoria can get a mound of barbecue sauce-drenched pork with a “Memphis BBQ” label on it from a Burger King drive-thru is probably unsettling to Memphians. I would imagine it’s similar to my own defeated feeling knowing that the Dickey’s in downtown Raleigh is the emissary for our Texas barbecue traditions to North Carolinians who don’t know any better.
The commodification of our traditions by fast-food companies is bothersome, but I’m more at odds with their execution. To most of these chains “barbecue” simply means adding a sweet sauce to any old meat, usually pork. I wrote last week about the nuanced definition of barbecue, but this isn’t it. Advertisements for these new products elicit a collective eye-roll from those of us familiar with real barbecue, but it can’t be ignored that an “Applewood Pulled Pork” sandwich from Subway (they don’t use “BBQ” in the name anymore) may be the sole local representation of barbecue in areas of the country without a barbecue tradition. This isn’t the case with burgers. Most any town at least has a diner with a better burger than what you can get at McDonald’s. People know what they’re getting when they order a Quarter Pounder. In the current issue of Meatpaper magazine, writer Michael Pollan explained why he thinks using synthetic meat in fast food burgers is a good possibility in the future. “Because a lot of that meat doesn’t have to be meat. A fast-food hamburger is so unlike a real hamburger. It’s really just a vehicle for ketchup and mayonnaise. Hitting that standard shouldn’t be too hard.”
While most of the chains don’t try, hitting the standard of good barbecue is even harder than a decent burger. The most recent fast-food chain to enter the barbecue game is at least trying. Arby’s smokes the brisket on their new Smokehouse Brisket sandwich for thirteen hours. I know this because their print ads, commercials, and menus prominently display this fact. Every mention of the sandwich seems to include the magic number thirteen. You can even use the url Smoked13Hours.com to get to the sandwich’s webpage. There you’ll learn the importance of thirteen hours of smoking. Arby’s says it “proves we’re pretty passionate about brisket.” Seeking more legitimacy, they filmed a commercial using the (not quite) endorsement of Neil Strawder of Big Mista’s BBQ in Los Angeles. Arby’s advertising agency is trying.
But how does it taste?
Arby’s brisket sandwich tasted of bread, barbecue sauce and mayonnaise. There was a hint of smoke from the smoked gouda and the thinly sliced brisket, but as Michael Pollan suggested, the meat just provided permission to eat condiment-slathered carbs. After all, it’s hard for three ounces of thinly sliced brisket to really do anything more.
Neville Craw is the head chef at Arby’s. I spoke with him about the process they went through to get the brisket sandwich on the menu. He lives in Atlanta and loves barbecue from the very legitimate Fox Bros. BBQ. He fully agrees that Arby’s is not making any sort of authentic barbecue sandwich. “We don’t develop any foods that pretend to be something else.” That’s why they don’t use “barbecue” in the name. The flavor they wanted to highlight was smoke – smoked brisket, smoked gouda, smoky barbecue sauce. They worked with a supplier on a smoked brisket recipe to fit their goals. “We wanted to leave some fat on there,” Craw said of the finished product. Fat carries the smoke flavor better than just the meat. That principle was what led them to add mayonnaise to the sandwich as well. It’s a fatty condiment that helps carry the smoky flavors and coat the mouth with those flavors.
I wasn’t exactly moved to sing this sandwich’s praises, so I asked Neil Strawder, well known for making proper barbecue, if he felt comfortable endorsing Arby’s attempt at a brisket sandwich. He was paid for his appearance, so he was careful with his words. “I stand behind everything I said in the commercial.” That doesn’t amount to much since the only meaningful line from Strawder was “that’s longer than I smoke my meat,” when informed of the all-important thirteen hour figure. That’s why I hesitate to call his appearance an endorsement. I asked if they sought out any tips from him on smoking brisket, he said no. “They had their own ideas.”
Another non-barbecue chain jumping into the smoked brisket fray is Firehouse Subs. They’re not shy about the source of their brisket. It’s from Sadler’s Smokehouse in Henderson, Texas. Firehouse Subs even provides a video tour of Sadler’s on their website. Most of the brisket smoked at this giant meat factory gets vacuum packaged for retail sale at Wal-Mart, but Firehouse serves it hot on their “Smokehouse Beef & Cheddar Brisket” sandwich. I went to their lone Dallas location near the Galleria to try one for myself.
Tasting the meat on its own was a similar experience to the Arby’s sandwich. It’s sliced thin with the texture of deli ham. There’s a whiff of smoke and a lot of salt, but not much of the beefiness you’d expect from brisket. There was certainly more of it than in the Arby’s sandwich, but it’s hard to call that a virtue. At least they asked if I wanted mayo on it first. No thanks.
My work is about comparisons. “Are these ribs better than the one’s I had yesterday? Was the sausage different here last month? Is this smoked turkey any better than what I can get from a deli counter?”. Chewing on the second bite of my Firehouse sub sandwich all I could think was, “Would I rather eat this than a chopped beef sandwich at Dickey’s?” Nope. I’d rather go to Dickey’s, and that’s saying something.