Back in 1980 and 1981, Robert Thomas owned two barbecue restaurants in Sacramento.
In one rib joint, he built a brick pit. He filled the firebox with hickory and oak, and smoked chicken, pork and beef the traditional way.
In the other, he was forced by space constraints to use a pressure cooker. The results were "tender," he recalled recently. "But I was catering basically to a white population."
Many blacks patronized the pit restaurant, he said. But when they sampled the wares at the other, they got as steamed as the meat.
Thomas, who is black, learned his lesson. The place he now owns in Gardena is dominated by a glowing pit.
The way he sees it, however, he may be forced to abandon the purity of his ethnic cuisine once again--this time because of the smog.
He and other pit barbecuers say that changing the time-honored way they cook ribs would discriminate against black culture, akin to forcing Japanese cooks to broil sushi or Italians to microwave their pasta.
For now, the future of pit barbecues in Los Angeles is in the hands of a team of engineers. The problem: There is no known way to control the pollutants in the smoke pouring forth from about 50 rib joints in the region, home to the nation's filthiest air. The temperatures and the grease quotient rise too high for conventional charbroiler filter systems.
Thomas, and several of his competitors, found out the hard way. Prompted by citations from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, they spent tens of thousands of dollars for pollution control equipment that within months caught fire and stopped functioning. They then faced more penalties.
When repeated crackdowns on barbecue pits drew protests from prominent black politicians, AQMD called a truce more than a year ago. With some financial help from Southern California Edison Co., the air quality agency hired a consulting firm for $125,000 to find a solution. During the search, regulators promised, inspectors would not write tickets.
Air quality regulators say the uproar has made them sensitive to a new issue in the intense politics of the fight to clean the air. As state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) puts it: "If we are going to have this kind of diverse society, we have to decide if we are going to protect certain cultural practices."
If the engineers can come up with effective, affordable technology, all will be well. Their deadline is July.
If they cannot, the alternative for barbecue chefs will be, as the bureaucrats say, to change their process.
Put simply, that would mean an end to wood fires, a prospect that fills pit barbecue owners and aficionados of their cooking with dread.
"Come on," Watson said. "I'd steam my vegetables, but I wouldn't want my barbecue steamed, no way."
"You can't change it," said an alarmed Air Force Tech. Sgt. Vincent Crews, who frequents Robert Thomas' restaurant. "It won't be the same. Smoke is the whole point."
Air regulators say not to worry. "I'm very hopeful," said Alex Bailey, an AQMD engineer, "that this process will move along and we won't have to touch the cooking process."
The pit owners, however, are nervous. "AQMD. That word gives me nightmares," said Leo Carter, who with his wife, Dorothy, owns Leo's Bar-B-Cue in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. "You can't sleep nights, worrying about those folks."
Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles) said it is "crazy that they're even going to all this trouble. For 50 little companies. Just think of how much money and how much time is going into doing this. It's regulation for regulation's sake, with no real impact."
Indeed, AQMD is not sure how much pollution the barbecue spots contribute to the air in its jurisdiction of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. But "the thinking is that there will be one rule that covers emissions from restaurants and since these are restaurants, they will be covered," said AQMD spokesman Bill Kelly.
A restaurant regulation is scheduled to come before the AQMD board in October, Kelly said. Eateries are not eligible for the proposed trading market in emissions rights under a plan envisioned by the AQMD's staff.
For barbecue cognoscenti around the country, the uproar provides a welcome excuse to revive some long-simmering debates. Does barbecue have to be cooked over a wood fire? And is it ethnic cooking or regional food?
Bobby Seale, a Black Panthers co-founder who has written a barbecue cookbook, cooks over charcoal briquettes and uses hickory chips and liquid smoke for seasoning. His meat, he has contended, tastes authentic.
But his words triggered cries of heresy.
"If it ain't smoked, it ain't barbecue. It's just that simple," said John Egerton, a Nashville-based author who writes about Southern food, culture and race relations.