The BBQ aesthetic

Anne —

I thought my school cafeteria days were behind me. I never thought I’d be eating off of a large tray again, albeit it was without the wobbly carton of fat-free milk (yuck!). I have to say this experience was way better and definitely a “sticky” memory supplanting all the horrible ones like that time I dropped my tray in the huge trash bin in second grade and got yelled at by some lunch lady to pick it out of the garbage. The lunch tray is a staple for American public schools, and the only other instance as American as a public school cafeteria and where it is acceptable to eat off a plastic tray or sheet pan is at a BBQ joint.

I’ve been thinking about plating and the overall barbecue aesthetic. To springboard my research I actually typed into Google “bbq aesthetic” and one result matching that string surfaced! That notable link was from Texas Monthly. Though the post was written three years ago, it was a great starting point to satiate my appetite for understanding how we got to serving BBQ on plastic trays, butcher paper and the accompanying sides in plastic or paper cups.

As I dove deeper into how to plate and present barbecue, many sites solely focused on how to present BBQ in a competition. Though I didn’t spend too much of my moonlighting hours scouring the Internet, I think it is safe to assume BBQ presentation for the everyday meal is not a big concern. Plastic, paper and styrofoam are the main vessels that will house the meats and sides and there is a cute backstory as to how sheet pans and butcher paper are used in joints across the US. Long story short, barbecue isn’t meant to be refined and presentation accounts for zero percent of a consumer’s scorecard because only the tastebuds and the nose do the judging. Since our nation boasts a variety of BBQ styles, there was much to learn when it came to BBQ competition.

I read many of the techniques and tips and realized that presentation only matters when BBQ is being judged!

A string of comments on the forum offered helpful banter about plating and presentation. (Remember, Google didn’t curate too many articles that fit my needs.) BBQ plating is nowhere near the refinement of an Iron Chef kitchen, but BBQ competitions have there own version of refined, inviting plates of meat. The “hollywood cut” seems to be contested (especially in the forum mentioned above) among competitors. As described from Texas Monthly, the hollywood style is a cut “where every other bone is discarded so each remaining bone has double the meat.” I’ve surmised that the more you stay true to the meat the more likable the presentation. Simple plating and ample portions for judges are keys, but there are a few tricks to the trade to keep the meat looking fresh off the smoker/pit/que as it waits to be judged.

Here are some pointers:

  • A shiny glaze of sauce requires butter, honey or maple syrup.
  • Spritz warm water on the meat right before the meat gets judged.
  • Gobs of sauce are unattractive.
  • Bundle pork together, not separately.

All in all, boxes and trays are the main modes for barbecue presentation. It seems boxes are more for competition and trays for that “market-style” eating.

Young or old, newbie or veteran, everyone partakes in this authentic BBQ dining experience. There is no noodling to sit at certain spot or table. No judging. There is no trading of snacks either. Instead people are mostly sharing or testing each other’s sides…if you’re with a friendly and receptive bunch.


BBQ style dining was never an option at my school cafeteria. Maybe it should be because of it’s honorable prep work, simple presentation, easy clean up and various variations from across the U.S. that could be an interactive history/home economics lesson plan. Better yet, the schools wouldn’t need to buy plates, all you need is butcher paper to lay the BBQ on. But then again, surviving public school lunch is a rite of passage.

My barbecue best,


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