Barbecue: The Movie
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Photos Courtesy: ©2017 Matthew Salleh and Rose Tucker.
On the surface, “Barbecue,” a new documentary by Australian filmmakers Matthew Salleh and Rose Tucker, is a cinematic devotional to the world’s oldest method of cooking. Through gorgeous footage shot in extraordinary locations, the film chronicles the duo’s trans-world quest to reveal how people barbecue around the globe. Their trek, over nearly three years, 200 days of filming, 54 flights, and hundreds of interviews, winds through 12 countries and every continent but Antarctica, and spotlights the familiar, the unusual, and the downright bizarre foods people cook over fire.
When the smoke dissipates, the underlying message is crystal clear: Barbecue is the great global unifier. “The simple act of cooking meat over fire – the most primitive thing – has the power to bring people together,” says Salleh, the director and cinematographer. “In these complicated times, it shows how culturally similar we all really are.”
Rather than emphasizing techniques and recipes, the film looks at barbecuing from a sociological and anthropological perspective, pointing out that, no matter how it is defined and practiced, barbecuing is about maintaining traditions and celebrating family, friendships and community.
“What we all cook is very different, but everyone does it for the same reasons,” Salleh says. “It’s not just the food, but the context that’s important. A barbecue is a celebratory thing. It’s about sharing the ritual of the cooking experience, as well as the meal. The similarities everywhere are striking.”
Another striking universal truth that Salleh reveals with a laugh: Everyone believes their barbecue is the best barbecue. “People everywhere are very proud of their way of life, their culture and their cuisine,” he says.
|Ndumiso cooks Chicken Dust on a street corner in KwaMashu, South Africa.|
The Making of the Movie
“Barbecue” came about by happenstance. Four years ago, when Salleh and Tucker were in Texas for a film festival, they took a road trip and stopped at a barbecue joint along the way. “Being Australian, we grew up with barbecuing and thought we knew all about it,” he says. “But we saw that Americans did it differently – and it was really good.”
The couple stopped at more barbecue restaurants, taking out their camera to film the pits and interview the pitmasters. Once they returned home, they edited the footage into a short film that had a good run at film festivals. It caught the attention of Australian arts organizations, which signed on to fund an expanded version of the story.
The 1-hour, 42-minute documentary begins in South Africa, where a barbecue is known as a “braai” or “shisa nyama,” the Zulu word meaning “to burn meat.” It is enjoyed in the country’s affluent communities, as well as in the poorest townships, where many make a living selling “chicken dust” (charcoal-grilled chicken) from roadside stands.
As one South African explains on camera, “Fire…is something that brings people together. They huddle around and tell stories. The glow of the flame draws people in. Braai is about good conversation, good meat, some drinks, getting together and being merry.”
It is around the fire of an “engangsgrill” that groups of friends and family gather the minute the sun peeks out after months of winter darkness in Sweden. Swedes tote these single-use, disposable, charcoal grills – essentially 9-x-13-in. aluminum pans with cooking grates – everywhere, from backyards to city parks, to festivals and events, to cook sausages, burgers, chicken and vegetables while soaking up the sunshine that lasts long into the night.
|Chef Katsunori Yashima fans yakitori in his Roppongi Hills restaurant Yakitori no Hachibei, in Tokyo, Japan.|
In Japan, yakitori is simple food with the powerful ability to connect people, according to Katsunori Yashima, a yakitori chef interviewed in the film. These mini grilled skewers of marinated chicken, or other meats, are extremely popular throughout the country, sold as street food from tiny stalls, as well as in fine-dining restaurants. Much like Americans might say, “Let’s get coffee,” in Japan, people say, “Let’s get yakitori,” the chef explains, “We have a primal instinct to use fire to cook meat. It may be the beginning of the human race.”
So treasured is the dish, and the binchotan charcoal essential to grilling it, that the charcoal makers first show prayerful reverence to the trees before felling them; they then cut the wood into pieces, and burn it in a kiln to create the carbonized wood sticks.
Throughout the film, whether it’s asado in Uruguay, lechon in the Phillipines, barbacoa in Mexico, or smoked brisket in Texas, the cooking of food over fire is a key component in native cuisine, lifestyles and traditions. But nowhere is it more deeply entwined with love and pride of homeland than in Armenia, where khorovats – hunks of meat skewered on long metal blades – are grilled alongside whole eggplants, peppers and tomatoes, and chased with a shot of vodka.
“We make this food with our hands and put our heart and soul into it to enjoy with our families,” says one man in the film. “The Armenian soul is fire and flames, and the motherland is very important. It’s irreplaceable, same as your family.”
Ironically, barbecue plays an equally pivotal role for people displaced from their homes and living under difficult circumstances at the Za’atari refugee camp on the border of Syria and Jordan. With limited resources, food and water, an entrepreneurial chef named Ahmed has managed to scrabble out a living making shawarma. The traditional dish, made from meat layered on a spit, rubbed with aromatic spices, and grilled slowly on a vertical rotisserie, is shaved off in thin slices and served with pita bread. It is one of the few connections to home and happier times for the refugees in the camp.
RIGHT: Ahmed’s skill as a chef shines in this traditional Syrian shawarma platter.
Salleh and Tucker, who acted as producer and sound technician, say they developed “cast-iron stomachs” while making the film. But both agree, eating “boodog” in Mongolia was the most challenging meal of the trip and definitely an acquired taste. The native dish is made by stuffing rocks that have been previously heated in a live fire, inside the cavity of a freshly slaughtered goat. The goat balloons as it cooks from the inside out, and is simultaneously cooked on the exterior using a blowtorch.
“They don’t bleed the meat first, so it’s very acrid, almost rancid tasting,” recalls Salleh. “It had a pungent flavor that was overwhelming, especially when it was combined with the aftertaste of butane from the torches. But sitting down with the family to eat the meal was a great experience. They are amazing people. It is a totally self-sufficient culture.”
Another memorable experience for the filmmakers was a traditional New Zealand barbecue known as a “hāngi.” The three-day gathering is a celebration of “whānau,” a word in the native Māori language that means extended family or tribe. It requires a group effort to complete the necessary prep work: digging a large deep pit in the ground; gathering firewood; building and lighting a fire in the pit; and lining it with heavy rocks and pieces of steel to hold the heat during the hours-long cooking process.
When the fire has burned down and the rocks are sufficiently heated, hunks of meat, potatoes and vegetables are wrapped in burlap cloth and placed in large wire baskets that are lowered into the pit and buried with soil.
While the food cooks, the family members gather around the pit “thinking only good thoughts and saying only good things,” according to one of the hāngi participants, adding, “It makes it better.” While a hāngi is not an every-weekend activity, it is a critical part of the native Māori culture, with older members teaching the techniques to the next generation to preserve the tradition.
At a Theater (or TV) Near You
The filmmakers say they had no trouble finding subjects to interview, even in the remotest of places. “People are very passionate about their native barbecue,” says Tucker. “They love to talk about what they’ve cooked and often want to pull out their phones to show you.”
Likewise, at screenings around the world, they’ve had no trouble filling theaters with eager audiences of barbecue enthusiasts, food lovers, and others interested in travel and world cultures. Several festivals have even hosted free community barbecues at the conclusion of the film screening.
At the Red Bank Indie Film Festival in Red Bank, New Jersey, attendees gathered to meet Salleh and Tucker, socialize, and snack on grilled, grass-fed-beef sliders, smoked-chicken tacos, and gazpacho at a cookout in front of the theater, put on as a collaborative effort involving a local restaurant, a gourmet market, an organic chicken farm, a barbecue sauce company, and a non-profit hunger organization. At another festival, a six-course, sit-down grilled dinner with wine pairings was served after the screening.
|Matthew Salleh filming in New Zealand.|
This is something barbecue retailers could replicate in their own communities by holding a screening at a local, independent movie theater, followed by a grill demo and tasting. Or perhaps you could host a screening at your store in an Outdoor Room display, and serve food inspired by the movie afterward (one suggestion: Skip the boodog!). Salleh and Tucker say they are interested in working with retailers to help set up screenings and other events that showcase the film, including providing access to discounts when possible. “We want people to be able to see the film and share it,” says Tucker.
Since making the movie, the couple has moved from their native Australia to an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. “It’s funny that we made a film about barbecuing, but now we live in a shoebox city apartment where we don’t even have the opportunity to barbecue,” Salleh says with a grin.
“If you tune into the news every day, you would think there is so much division and disinterest in other people and other cultures,” Salleh adds. “In our experience, that’s just not true. If people could just come together and sit down at a barbecue, they would see how much we all have in common. Fire and food starts conversation. We hope our film gets people talking, as well.”
“Barbecue” is available through Netflix, iTunes and Amazon. For more information, or to connect with filmmakers Matthew Salleh and Rose Tucker, visit www.barbecuefilm.com.