Barbecue is more than a just a description of a method of cooking, a type of sauce, or an excuse for a get-together. Instead, it is a living cultural expression of regional uniqueness that usually results in camaraderie, creativity, and more importantly deliciously succulent eats. More importantly, barbecue is a NOUN, not a verb (that's the rule here in the South, anyway.)
I didn’t always think this was the case. Growing up in NYC the word “barbeque” was definitely a verb, associated with creating a bonfire from charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid in an apartment terrace hibachi, a task usually relegated to my father who invariably charred whatever meat product was thrown on top of the blaze. The charred meat was then slathered with a thick glaze of supermarket brand “BBQ sauce.”
So years later when Jodi and I moved to North Carolina I could not understand why so many restaurants dedicated to barbecue dotted the landscape. I mean how could people get so excited about tough dried-out burnt pieces of meat?
Was I missing something? Was this ‘cue stuff good after all? I mean I’m the kind of guy who likes to be “in the know” so I asked around and finally visited one of the most recommended barbecue joints in Winston Salem…Little Richard’s on Country Club Road. The place was a little intimidating to this NYC boy. It looked nothing like a Manhattan restaurant, and a thick haze of smoke (both cigarette & barbecue) filled the air.
Three main things were on the menu: sliced, coarse chopped and chopped. Jodi and I looked at each other a little perplexed, shrugged our shoulders, and not wanting to look like we had no clue (after all we were newly arrived Yankees and all things “Deliverance” popped into our heads), proceeded to order a tray of all three items. We nervously nodded yes to “Y’all want swite tie?” even though neither of us had a clue what she was saying.
When we were handed our food and “swite tie” we looked concerned…piles of unknown meat, some fried spheres, and a very runny thin spicy reddish looking sauce. But when we started eating both Jodi and I lit up…the meat was tender and moist with deep smoky flavor, the fried spheres were clearly made of corn with a nice crunch and a hint of spice, and the sauce was some combination of vinegar and tomato. We figured that all the smoky meat morsels were pork, just cut and served differently, since the place was decorated with a lot of pig paraphernalia. From Jodi’s summers spent at Carolina Beach, she surmised that the fried spheres were hushpuppies, and we both realized that the translation for “swite tie” was “sweet tea.”
My only question at this point was “Where can I get more?”
I now thankfully know that my father’s attempts at pyrotechniques were more closely related to grilling (cooking rather quickly directly over a flame at high heat), and not barbecue. Simply put, I view barbecue as a slow cooking process over indirect hardwood smoke…it’s all about cooking LOW & SLOW.
Throughout history every culture has had barbecue in form or another, and in the United States every locale appears to have its own style, using specific meats, wood, spices, and sauces. These variants can be found in some of the traditional barbecue styles that I have tried including:
Alabama (northern)..………..pork or chicken with a unique mayonnaise/vinegar sauce
Missouri (Kansas City)..……beef brisket/burnt ends/variety of meats w/thick sweet sauce
North Carolina (eastern)……whole hog with vinegar/hot pepper dip
North Carolina (Lexington)...pork shoulder focused with a thin tomato/vinegar dip
North Carolina (western)...…pork focused with a tomato infused dip
Pacific Northwest…………..fish, particularly salmon, cooked over cedar
South Carolina (Columbia)....pulled pork with a mustard/brown sugar/apple cider dip
Tennessee (Memphis wet).....pork ribs basted with a sweet sauce before & after cooking
Tennessee (Memphis dry)......pork ribs rubbed with spices, cooked until a crust is formed
Texas (southern)…………….barbacoa or pulled cow’s head usually eaten in a taco
Texas (western)……………..beef ribs & brisket cooked over mesquite
Even though I have tried a lot of barbecue, I have only scratched the surface. I don’t think that one type is better than another…I enjoy them all, think each one is delicious in its own right, and I always want to try more and more and more! That’s the real beauty of barbecue…there is always something different to try and some new culture and region to learn about.
What is your favorite barbecue style? What should I try next?