John Birmingham writes from Australia:
Even, and this is gonna hurt, the Americans have it all over us when it comes to cooking with fire, iron and tongs. In fact it’s arguable the American barbecue, or rather its plethora of regional variations on barbecue, set the gold standard worldwide for applying heat to meat while out of doors. While the popular image of American cooking, at least as practised by average Americans, involves squeezing a plastic sauce packet over something nasty in a chain restaurant, the truth is their barbecue specialists would put ours to shame. Undying, unutterable shame.
Alas, John, it is so. I have eaten barbecue all over the U.S. and the world, and the kings of the genre are in this country. Not in my part of it; I’m a Boston-born northerner and most barbecue where I live is as bland and bad as you describe. As a general rule in the U.S. the further south you go the better the barbeque gets, with the acme reached in south Texas. (Though the area around Memphis, further north, is a contender.)
Internationally, almost nobody even competes with the Southern U.S. for the barbecue crown. Brazilian churrasco is the one exception I can think of – that stuff can give good ol’ Texas ‘cue a run for its money. But you ex-British-Empire types aren’t even properly in the running. I’ve been to a backyard braai in South Africa and, while the spirit was there, the seasoning and cooking technique was sadly lacking, much like what you describe.
American cooking in general gets a bad rap internationally that it doesn’t deserve. It’s as though foreigners think it’s still 1965 here or something. I can remember a time in my childhood when the slams were richly deserved — heck, I remember returning here from Europe in 1971 and having to wait more than a decade before I saw a decent piece of bread! But Americans got a clue about food in the 1980s and haven’t lost it since. I learned this when I was traveling intensively around the turn of the century; most places I visited, even the “high-quality” food was inferior to what I ate at home.
UPDATE: I suppose it’s worth noting that Brazilian-style churrascarias have become the most recent high-end restaurant fad in the U.S., suggesting that other Americans generally agree with me that the style competes well with native ‘cue. Sadly, Korean barbecue failed to become naturalized here when that was tried in the 1990s.