Is Minnesota barbecue actually a thing?

We asked the experts, and got really hungry in the process.
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Food trends in Minnesota arrive full force, in multiples and waves. Italian food came in like a lion (and left like a lamb) and at long last, ramen is all over. At even longer last, barbecue is having its day in the Northern sun.

But is Minnesota barbecue here to stay? And moreover, is it its own thing, or are we just acquiring Southern traditions and calling it good enough?

See also: 5 barbecue dishes you can (mostly) only get in Minnesota

I checked in with three local pitmasters – an OG, an innovator, and the most FAMOUS of the bunch. They all see it differently, from the local significance to what style of ‘Q qualifies.

The traditional BBQ perspective

For many of us, Big Daddy’s Barbeque is where it all begins. While friendly and sunny inside, the no-frills University and Dale counter-service space reminds me of the Kansas City Style joints where all the drama is on the plate.

Proprietors Bob Edmond and Ron Whyte hail from Kentucky and Georgia, but they’ve been serving barbecue in the Twin Cities for over 30 years. I figured if anyone had anything to say about the notion of Minnesota-style barbecue, it would be them.

Is there a such thing as Minnesota barbecue?

“No,” said Edmund, definitively.

He recalled his corporate years back in the day, when he’d ask native Minnesota colleagues what they did over the weekend and the response would come:

“We barbecued!”

“Oh? Whad’ya have?”

“Brats and burgers!”

“Huh. Must be a Minnesota thing,” he thought.

So it is.

According to Edmund, Minnesotans are still shaking off the notion that “barbecue” is dad lighting the grill, throwing meat on a flame, and slathering a bunch of sauce on it. Delicious indeed, but it ain’t barbecue.

When someone lands at Big Daddy’s and bites into some heavily smoked, marshmallow-tender rib tips, they’ll say, “Finally.” (I had a similar tastebud epiphany at Rendezvous in Memphis.) When people got all worked into a froth about barbecue, this is what they were talking about.

Today, there are about a dozen other places where truly excellent ‘Q can be had around here. Twenty years ago, it was less than half that many.

The Nordic BBQ perspective

Erik Forsberg of East Town’s new Erik the Red felt that absence of smoked meat acutely when he arrived in the Twin Cities in the mid-'80s after time spent in Virginia and the Carolinas. Where he came from, barbecue was a staple. Something to take for granted.

He considered opening a restaurant here, but people always told him not to hang his hat on barbecue. Minnesotans just didn’t “get it.” 

Through research, he found that Northern culinary traditions had many of the same preservation techniques as traditional Southern barbecue styles. In the North, it was simply for different reasons: to preserve foods for the long and enduring frigid winters.

Forsberg dug some more, and found smoked fish and lamb, horseradish for heat rather than chiles, and even many of the same spice profiles you find in southern barbecue and jerk rubs, like allspice, nutmeg, and star anise. Our bearded Scandinavian forefathers hopped those Viking ships and engaged in trade with Europe, Asia and the Far East – common spice routes. So Kansas City ribs have some of the same aromas as grandma’s pickled herring and smorgasbords.

A “Nordic manifesto” was applied at Eric the Red, where lingonberries go in the barbecue sauce and smoked salmon is served next to lefse. The manifesto continues to evolve.

The all-over Midwestern BBQ perspective

One name in barbecue that needs no introduction is “Famous” Dave Anderson, founder of the nationwide Famous Dave’s empire. Famous Dave’s began in Wisconsin, and the Linden Hills location was once so popular that literal fistfights broke out over tables. 

As the Famous Dave’s franchises grew out of his control (he's currently a consultant) the godfather of Midwestern barbecue decided a reset was in order. He recently opened an new chain called Old Southern BBQ Smokehouse, inspired by his Oklahoma-bred pa.

What does Dave think of Minnesota barbecue? The question itself is a bit flawed, he said. 

“Barbecue,” he told me, “Is America’s own food.”

Though aficionados tend to get hung up on regional styles, the more important idea is that barbecue is just what America does, regardless of how exactly we do it.

If you must nerd out on region, Dave said you'll find more ribs, pulled pork, and chicken in the Midwest, as opposed to sausage, brisket, and mutton in other parts of the country. For sauces, he said we like molasses, brown sugar, and tomato, instead of chile, mustard, or vinegar-based stuff.

You’ll find country-wide regional influences at Jimmie’s, but Midwestern influences show up in the Ranch dressing, quick pickles, and broccoli salad with sunflower seeds and cranberries. If that’s not Minnesotan, I don’t know what is.

So the BBQ debate continues...

I put the question to Erik Sather, proprietor of the excellent Lowry Hill Meat and occasional meat-smoker. (Watch for the big barrel smoker when it sometimes lands in the parking lot of the store, then float over on the curls of smoke.) He said Minnesota barbecue will “fall into place.”

“And until then, it can be whatever it wants to be.” 

Which is a pretty cool hand, when you think about it. For the time being, we don’t have to be tethered to rules and traditions that might get a get a Texan booted out of Kansas City or vice versa.

And even though Big Daddy’s won't call themselves a Minnesota barbecue joint, they tip their poker hand a bit when regaling a recent tale of a customer, hailing from Texas, in search of Texas-style ‘Q.

“It’s the kind of thing where one bone gets you full? Yeah, you’re not going to get that here,” said Edmund. “You’re at Big Daddy’s Barbecue. In St. Paul, Minnesota."

So put that on your heat and smoke it. 

Mecca Bos is a Twin Cities-based food writer. She has an upcoming podcast called Snax Everywhere. Find her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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