Epicure Founder Chris O'Leary Deconstructs Authentic American BBQ
A recent visit to the fabulous and delicious Shotgun – an American BBQ restaurant in London’s Carnaby area– taught me an important lesson about what it is to be American:
There is American and then there is mythically American.
I – Chris O’Leary – am American. To break this down linguistically, there is the concept, or identity of being American (the signified), then there is me (the signifier) who exists as a biological entity. When the American identity and I interact – which we do rather well given that I am American born, have an American accent, have lived in America for most of my life; etc. – the sign for Chris O’Leary as American is born.
What is crucial to the understanding of the sign Chris O’Leary as American is that it is full of meaning and that it is not a message to be communicated to and digested by a particular audience. When I say full of meaning, I am referring to the fact that my status as an American is not transient, thin or capricious, but the consequence of a wide and complicated history that has affected my own existence. As a result, my being is decorated with a range of codes and signs that implicitly signify my American-ness. And yet, these codes and signs do not seek out an audience to be recognised as an American since this national status, and all its rich meaning, persists with or without somebody naming it American.
This is what I expected upon arriving at Shotgun – two full, rich and complete signs of American-ness staring at each other, myself and Shotgun. This is not at all what happened. In the place of the effusive sign for American-ness I encountered a pleasantly dim mahogany interior, a menu that exuded super-quality meat dishes put together with an attentive, skillful and imaginative hand and a drinks list with plenty of nice wines – some American – and cocktails that jumped off the menu as a range of delectable elixirs.
At first glance Shotgun was the opposite of what I expected, and yet, myth is not the opposite of a meaningful sign – myth is a sign that has been emptied of its meaning and history and replaced with something else entirely, always a message intended for a specific audience. The relationship between a sign and a myth is far more complicated and interesting, as the latter is the shell of the former filled with an essence that forever changes its integrity and purpose.
As the ambiance, food and drink at Shotgun do not come together to present a meaningful sign of American-ness, for it to be considered American, it must rely on its customers naming it so. This is the way myth works – it is not a statement of fact; i.e. the indicative – it is a supplication; i.e. the imperative. It is not Shotgun serves American BBQ; it is Hey! Over Here! Label everything you see at Shotgun ‘authentic American BBQ’!
As Shotgun’s status as American is so utterly reliant on its customers naming it so, it has created a sophisticated narrative that unequivocally proclaims the fact that it serves Authentic American BBQ. This story – that includes frequently naming its cuisine ‘Southern American BBQ’ or ‘Authentic American BBQ’, the fascinating and esoteric origin of its namesake, the Mississippi heritage of its executive chef and its ‘New Orleans-style’ bar – infiltrates and informs all aspects of its marketing and branding so that anyone who encounters Shotgun is requested to name it American despite it clearly not being a full, rich and complete sign of American-ness.
As the authentic American BBQ proposed by Shotgun is myth, its undoubted quality notwithstanding, it has been emptied of the rich history, determinations and contingencies that have organically produced the celebrated American BBQ culinary genre and its associated culture. At Shotgun, authentic BBQ has been reduced to a menu of exciting dishes and drinks that is, at best, inspired by American BBQ, whose definition morphs and evolves not according to the cannon of American BBQ but to the whims of Shotgun’s chefs.
The menu – which includes items like Point-End Brisket and Jacobs Ladder – exudes a niche expertise and superlative quality that massively transcends what the average American enjoys at a BBQ, which is generally burgers, hot dogs and ribs. Therefore at Shotgun we are not dealing with the everyday American BBQ.
So are we dealing with a precise manifestation of Memphis or Kansas City BBQ? If so, there is no mention anywhere to let us know – which would be essential given the particular way in which each style’s pork ribs, for instance, are prepared and served. And despite being happy to admit that there may just be a place in America where Americans enjoy the Shotgun menu as it is presented here in London, I cannot imagine that the more traditional BBQ options are enjoyed alongside duck or porcini rubbed ox cheek, that both make the occasional appearance, nor could I with a sweet potato fondant or baked potato purée.
The cocktails at Shotgun are worth a visit in their own right, and yet neither do they promote the ‘Authentic American BBQ’ experience. No Pabst Blue Ribbon… no bourbon offered by the glass (or bottle)… No Bud Lite; i.e. modern redneck. In their place we have truly excellent cocktails made from a range of spirits from cognac to mezcal, but there is little that evokes a dive bar in Texas. Incidentally, New Orleans does have a vibrant and sophisticated cocktail culture not dissimilar to Shotgun’s offering – but are New Orleans-style cocktails regarded as classic beverage to enjoy with ‘Authentic American BBQ? Not really.
The presence of myth is usually a hallmark of a woefully inadequate product – Shotgun is different because it uses myth to its advantage. Shotgun is operating against the cultural context of the British BBQ, which – despite its more-or-less rigid menu involving burgers and sausages – is a phenomenon that is less about a precise culinary genre and more about celebrating the fleeting moments of warm, beautiful summer in Britain. Ultimately the notion of the ‘British BBQ’ does not give the British a particular good opportunity to come to grips with authentic American (or Australian, for that matter) BBQ. This puts Shotgun in the ideal position to channel the full extent of its creativity and ingenuity to make the definition of ‘BBQ’ whatever it wants it to be, with its savvy London customers making only two requests – the food and drink be exceptional and that they be at least suggestive of the authentic American BBQ that has clearly served as one of the restaurant’s key inspirations.
Shotgun is not a sign of being American – it is an American myth, and a damn tasty one.
Here is what I enjoyed during my meal at Shotgun.
To drink – Mezcal Extra Cocktail x 3
Starter - Broccoli and Cheddar Soup
Main – Baby Back Ribs for 2
Sides – Sweet Potato Fondant & BBQ Baked Beans
Dessert – Pecan Brownie
Total Cost: £75.37 (including service)