The first truism of barbecue is that no matter who you are, no matter how much you know about the subject, the very moment you opine on the topic, someone is going to tell you that you know absolutely nothing about Barbecue. No other subject in the American culinary canon inspires such disparate opinions and fierce debate. And of all native foodstuffs, only Barbecue is responsible for more pork-fueled fistfights than the McRib.
While I am certainly no expert on Barbecue (a fact that will be pointed out ad nauseum in the comments section below), I consider myself an aficionado of the art and craft of reducing a whole hog to a delicious and easily portable sandwich size. I am constantly on the lookout for new barbecue joints to sample, and I continually add to my bucket list of places to try before the cumulative effects of eating too much smoked pig causes my heart to seize up like a small block Chevy V-8 drained of its oil.
To the absolute purist, barbecue is a whole hog cooked low and slow over direct heat. A thin sauce composed primarily of vinegar and pepper is added to moisten and flavor the meat. This is the classic Eastern North Carolina version, the mother of American Barbecue, and the style of which I am most fond. Move inland, and you have the Lexington or Western NC style. This style adds ketchup or a little tomato paste to the sauce for a light tomato sauce, and uses a faster-cooking pork shoulder. Head south, into the midlands of South Carolina, and they add mustard to the sauce instead of ketchup. Western Kentucky uses mutton as their primary protein, and a thin but exceptionally flavorful dip with a Worcestershire sauce base. Memphis is known for its ribs, normally served “dry,” with just a spice rub and no sauce. Kansas City is an amalgam of styles, but best known for having given the world the de facto standard barbecue sauce, a heavy tomato-based condiment redolent of spices and smoke flavoring. Texas takes in several styles, as well, with their representative being the market-style; sausage, and beef seasoned with little more than salt and pepper.
Those are just the major styles, and a short overview of each, but should serve as more than enough to incur the wrath of those learned barbecue scholars who will assure me that I know about as much about barbecue as I do quantum mechanics and then helpfully suggest that I should extricate my head from my hindquarters and confine my writing to those things I actually do know something about, which would be absolutely nothing. They will then question the legitimacy of my birth and, ultimately, compare me to Hitler (see Godwin’s Law). Welcome to the Internet.
One of the things I find most curious in my study of barbecue is the fact that Appalachia, by which I mean the mountainous regions, has no native barbecue tradition, no distinctive styles of its own. We have smoked and cured meat for centuries, it’s not like we don’t have the skills. Yet, we took to foreign delights like Italian pizza and German pilsner beer long before we finally decided that slow cooking our favorite meat with smoke and adding a tangy sauce was a damned fine idea. I have a few ideas as to why barbecue is only a relatively recent addition to Appalachian culture, along with dive-y little strip mall Chinese restaurants and Diet Mountain Dew.
One reason would be scarcity. Hogs are a perfect protein source for mountaineers. Meat-heavy, requiring very little space, and can be fed on scraps and leftovers or left to free forage until time for slaughter, it is little wonder that pork is its own food group in the mountains. But given the scarcity of usable land, combined with the sparseness of population, meant that a precious hog was generally sacrificed in the late Fall and everything that could be preserved was put up—by curing, or sometimes even canning—to last through the tough months of winter. The other staple proteins of the mountains, wild game from deer to possum, didn’t lend themselves to the low and slow method. What couldn’t be preserved was eaten as soon as possible. The rest was then fed to the hogs, creating a sort of infinite meat loop.
Then, there’s culture. The first white settlers in the mountains were Scots-Irish. Their method of using the scraps or tough bits of the hog or game meats like venison involved either slow roasting, braising, or sausage-making. Largely isolated, barbecue didn’t make any measurable inroads in the mountains until the mid-20th century. In the Sixties, when Kraft marketed their homogenized version of a Kansas City sauce, it was simply adopted as another condiment. Kansas City-style baby back ribs began popping up on restaurant menus in the Eighties. It has been only within the past decade or so that we’ve started to see any measurable penetration of real barbecue. The dried crust around the top of a bottle of Texas Pete on the tables of some old-school deep South BBQ havens is probably older than most of our better joints.
Finally, let us not forget fierce regionalism. Not only are mountain people indelible parts of their land, and vice versa; barbecue, until very recently, has been the same. To get good barbecue, you had to go find it; it did not come to you. Eastern North Carolina joints held their stronghold along the coast, reaching down into South Carolina and up into Virginia. The Central Texas temples of market-style barbecue were, by and large, concentrated in the mecca of Lockhart. If you wanted Memphis-style ribs, you’d best be heading for that corner of Tennessee. This protectionism has largely been responsible for slowing the growth of barbecue outside of the recognized boundaries of each distinctive style. And the subtle distinctions between styles, sometimes reduced to small variations from county to county, made it difficult for the newcomer to navigate this bewildering and insular world. For decades, Barbecue was almost a secret society with entry given only to those with Dixie in their blood , overseen by the Master of the Pit under the Order of the Hog With A Choice of Two Sides.
It is another truism of barbecue that nothing this good can stay secret forever. Particularly in a world now interconnected to a degree that would have seemed unimaginable just a generation ago. A truly superior plate of barbecue gets Tweeted, Foursquared, Instagrammed, Facebooked, Tumblr’d , Pinterested and Yelped before the second forkful. Barbecue competitions have become popular civic events, with a greater payoff for a community than some esoteric local festival or generic seasonal celebration. It also made it easier for upstart amateur-pitmasters to become fledgling restaurateurs, using the skills and knowledge gained competing against seasoned barbecue veterans, often without being honor bound to any regional style. Enterprising types from outside the South are putting their own spin on barbecue, and are coming up with something unique even within living memory of a time when even the suggestion of a blueberry-chipotle barbecue sauce would have likely gotten those carpet bagging ham dandies run out of town on a rail.
So it was with these winds of change, borne on gossamer Chinet plates, that barbecue arrived in Appalachia. From little makeshift roadside trailers to remarkable approximations of old school BBQ joints to shiny new strip-mall storefronts, there is some surprisingly good—and, to be fair, some disappointingly mediocre— barbecue being served in places that were once the exclusive domain of beer joint lunch counters and “country cooking” family sit-downs. And of course, I’ve been eagerly following the smoke trail as it winds through the Blue Ridge, and plotting my course to some of the marquee names in barnecue to check off my bucket list. Along the way, I’ve developed a set of helpful guidelines to exploring the great Southern art.
The Genius Guide to Finding, Enjoying, and Preserving the Art of Barbecue:
1. It is virtually without exception that the skeevier a real barbecue joint looks on the outside, the better the food will be. Similarly, good barbecue requires no fancy presentation. Central Texas market style barbecue comes wrapped in butcher paper with a slice of white bread. A proper pulled pork sandwich is spilling over with meat, completely obscuring the bottom bun, served wrapped in a lined foil wrapper. If you want a neat, tidy sandwich or a meal served on a real plate, there’s probably a Cracker Barrel nearby.
2. In my opinion, there are three things a Southern gentleman never does: never beats his wife, his kids, or his dog; never speaks ill of his friends or neighbors; never puts slaw on his barbecue. I feel very strongly about that. I don’t care if it’s your great-grandmother’s secret slaw recipe that she swam back to the sinking Titanic to recover. I don’t care if so many generations of your family have been doing it that there are Daguerreotypes of your great-great-great uncle holding a slaw-covered Barbecue sandwich. Slaw goes on the side, if it belongs anywhere at all on a proper plate of Barbecue.
3. I will accept barbecue being shortened to BBQ, but never ‘cue. It’s not hip, it’s cloying and twee and will make me have to call you a d‘bag. And Barbecue, as a proper noun, is always pork. Any other meat cooked low and slow, and served with the appropriate sauce, is barbecued; it becomes an adjective, as in barbecued chicken. Out of respect for their long tradition, I will accept the term Texas Barbecue to include beef and sausage. And barbecuing, as a verb, means cooking meat low and slow, infusing it with smoke. But if you are cooking hot dogs and hamburgers on the backyard Weber, you are not barbecuing, you are grilling. The next person who invites me over for a barbecue and then serves up standard picnic fare might just get an Oscar Meyer colonoscopy.
4. The highest praise a good barbecue joint can merit from a local is “It ain’t what it used to be.” This almost always means that the place has been around so long, and of such good quality, that it can no longer measure up to the idealized standard that lives in the hearts of its long-term patrons. I think of it in terms of a little local pizza place, Cucci’s, that holds a special place in my heart. The pizza is still as good as it has always been, when judged objectively, but the place now can never measure up to the Cucci’s of 1977, when I first discovered what really good pizza could be and enjoyed the company of my now-departed parents in a world that, to a 10 year-old, seemed safe and secure and permanent. And it is no match for Cucci’s of 1983, when my first love and I would enjoy a pie together almost every weekend for the brief and tumultuous duration of our relationship. The pizza is still great, but the world has changed and nothing that can come out of those 30+ year old ovens can ever make it what it used to be. For a place to have earned so special a spot in one’s heart, it must have been really something. And probably still us. Go there.
5. If you don’t smell a barbecue joint before you see it, you should probably keep moving. However, granting benefit of the doubt to shifting winds, if you don’t see a woodpile anywhere about, you should probably keep moving. As Alton Brown said, “You can cook a whole hog over gas. You’ll surely go to Hell for it, but you can do it.”
6. Forget sides, load up on meat. A good barbecue joint usually does one thing extremely well, and that’s the happy dancing pig on the sign. That’s not to say you can’t get a good side dish in a good barbecue place–I once had a revelatory experience with collard greens at Luella’s in Asheville, NC, and the red slaw at Lexington Barbecue is not to be missed– but it’s not the norm. The macaroni and cheese is almost uniformly disappointing, the green beans usually come from a can, the baked beans are usually either canned or syrupy sweet or both. And no one, except me and perhaps my brother, makes a pone of cornbread that I can regard as even moderately acceptable.
7. Recognize excellence, no matter where and how you find it. While I prefer the Eastern NC style to Lexington style, I can still admit when I get a good plate of Western-style BBQ. I have a representative selection of Western NC sauces. Don’t automatically turn up your nose and put on your snob hat at a pile of Texas brisket just because you consider yourself a Midland SC partisan (“It’s Jackie Hite or fight!”). Everyone likes brisket; no one likes a snob. Especially in Texas, where even in a hipster-infested Boho enclave like Austin, that sort of asshattery will get you tied to a tree with organic hemp rope and forced to listen to a quirky acoustic duo who has just graduated from busking in the park to signing with a hip indie label where they will explore the creative angst of a hopeful future in a seemingly hopeless present with a banjo and a concertina.
8. Barbecue was here before it was fashionable, and it will continue to be here once the foodie crowd decides that barbecue is so Obama’s first term and that Nashville hot chicken is the shiny new toy in the American culinary toy box (“It’s so authentic!”). What I mean is that while it’s fine to seek out and try the Johnny-come-latelys, don’t forget the places that have been around for decades. When the local strip mall smokeshack The Smokin’ Swine (formerly The Quinoa Quorner, and before that, The Banh Mi Barn) closes down and reopens as The Flamin’ Fowl, don’t forget the little joints scattered throughout our beloved Southland that have been in operation so long they’ve got an autographed picture of Calvin Coolidge sitting at the booth above which the picture hangs. A good plate of barbecue will always be a transcendent joy, even once it has been expunged from the depths of the Temporary Hell of the Currently Popular.
9. Barbecue is heat plus meat plus smoke. It’s all about technique, using the right amount of smoke and heat to produce a finished product that is moist and tender, and tastes of the proper amount of smoke and meat. The sauce is just a complement, no matter how fiercely debated and scrutinized it may be. Even though I myself have a weakness for barbecue sauce, a fact borne out by the irrational number of bottles residing in the ‘Dome’s pantry, I still view it as mayonnaise on a hamburger; it is possible to have a good burger with mediocre mayonnaise, but even the best mayo can’t redeem a bad burger. And no, I’m not using this as an opportunity to insert a plug for my favorite mayonnaise, Virginia’s own Duke’s, but since we’re on the subject.
10. Barbecue should not be worshipped or fetishized, or reduced to geek-craft minutia like a Star Wars film. It was born from a make-do spirit, a way to make the toughest, least desirable parts of the pig edible. The better parts of the animal, such as the loin and the ham, were reserved for the rich folks (which is where we get the phrase “eating high on the hog” as a euphemism for being comfortable). It was a party food for people who seemingly didn’t have a whole lot to celebrate, a comfort food for those with very little actual comfort. So it should be seen as a triumph, a shared joy across generations, an integral and welcoming part of our culture even if it has not always been so accessible to the outsider. Barbecue is, and should be, an ebullient, soul-stirring experience; both damned good food and a damned fine time to be had.
When one loses sight of barbecue’s humble origins, or fails to find the charm in the kitschy smiling pigs on the weathered sign out front or the peculiar beauty in the rundown storefronts that usually signify the true cathedrals of the art, they run the risk of committing the single deadliest sin one can commit against something they truly love, the sin of taking the thing too seriously. It happens when the intransigent and humorless fanatic holds fiercely to their own narrow idea of barbecue as if it were religion. The icy death grip of the zealot ultimately chokes the life out of the thing they hold most dear, or turns it into something unrecognizable and useless. And then there is the equally deadly walking encyclopedia, filled with facts but bereft of knowledge and willing to wax forth at length on the subject at any opportunity real or imagined until they make barbecue seem as dry and unappealing as the little bits of stray pork one finds in the floorboards of the car for months after eating a good sandwich. The pedant knows everything there is to know about barbecue, except how to enjoy it. They revel in esoterica, but ultimately, they must murder in order to dissect. The surest way to rescue BBQ from the clutches of both these sorts is, fortunately, relatively simple; laughter, and more barbecue. And maybe a couple three beers thrown in for good measure.