The first party we hosted after moving to North Carolina was a barbecue, or so we thought. Since then, we have learned that barbecue has many meanings and, apparently, depending on where you are from, can cause much confusion.
My wife, two young daughters, and I moved 500 miles from home to a state where we knew no one. We didn’t just want a house warming. We wanted to introduce ourselves to our new neighbors and co-workers and thank the people who had helped us to relocate. Summer formed the backdrop, and we planned to invite a lot of people, so we decided to have it outside. We were going to have a great big barbecue!
For days, we shopped, chopped, marinated, decorated, cooked, and baked, determined to make it our best barbecue ever. No hamburgers or hot dogs here—we were committed to stamping the beginning of the next chapter in our lives with a great first (or in a few cases second) impression.
As our guests arrived, I encountered what I perceived to be some rather odd greetings. “I don’t smell any smoke. You aren’t cheating, are ya?” ”So, where’s your pig?” “I’ve been starving for some barbecue all week!” Feeling awkward from what I assumed were inside jokes, I politely laughed and then headed for the grill. While cooking the lemon-rosemary rubbed NY strip steaks and scampi marinated shrimp, I continued making small talk. Even though I still sensed a slight disconnect, I shrugged it off as newbie self-consciousness.
Then, when basting the prosciutto, Pecorino, and arugula stuffed pork loins with my sundried tomato and garlic infused olive oil, I overheard a conversation between my wife and one of her co-workers that has stuck with me ever since. As they placed the tortellini salad, roasted peppers and mozzarella, marinated eggplant, and Mediterranean-style potato salad (balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil; no mayo) on the table, it went something like this:
“Where’s the barbecue?”
“This is the barbecue.”
Giggles. “Honey, in the South, you can’t call it a barbecue if there’s no barbecue.”
More giggles. “A barbecue can be a pig pickin’, but it must have some chopped barbecue at the very least and slaw. They’ll forgive you if there are no hushpuppies, but you’ve got to have some slaw.”
As I brought the pork loins to the table, my head spun with questions, but all I could get out was, “If this isn’t a barbecue, what is it?” “Why this is cook-out. And a fancy one at that!”
Since that exchange, I’ve spent countless days scouring books, Googling, taking classes, and seeking out experts. I’ve learned barbecue is a verb when you are cooking (I barbecued a couple of shoulders last night). It is a noun when referring to an event (we’re going to a barbecue at the church) or a cooking vessel (I don’t think that pig will fit on my barbecue). Barbecue is also a noun when it’s to be eaten (I’ll have the barbecue), but can be an adjective, too (she prefers barbecue brisket).
To confuse things further (at least for us transplants), most Southern states, and some regions within each state, disagree on the type of meat or the style of sauce to use for barbecue. For instance, here in North Carolina, it has to be pork, but in Texas, it is beef. In western North Carolina, the sauce has to have a thick tomato base (“Lexington style”), but eastern North Carolina prefers a thin, spicy vinegar based sauce. But in South Carolina, the barbecue sauce is mustard based, and in Alabama, it’s white.
Then, even if a few states agree on the type of meat and sauce, they usually disagree on the cut of meat (for example, pork ribs in Memphis and Kansas City, but shoulder or whole hog in North Carolina). And this is just scratching the surface.
There are a myriad of books, websites, and societies dedicate to the study, explanation, and preservation of barbecue and all its traditions. If you’d like to dig deeper, start with Jim Auhmuley and Susan Puckett’s The Ultimate Barbecue Sauce Cookbook, Lolis Eric Elie’s Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, Steven Raichlen’s BBQ USA (to name a few), or one of my personal favorites, John Shelton Reed and Dale Voleberg Reed’s Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.
Our new friends stayed well into the night. They departed with satisfied bellies and smiling faces. A few even left with a slight buzz. While I’m sure it’s no coincidence that we first heard the famous Southern saying, “Bless your heart!” (a story for another time) on that same fateful day, they forever instilled in me a hunger to learn more about the food and dining habits of my new home –not only barbecue and North Carolina, but all of Southern food culture. And, yes, some of them do still rib us about our initial misuse of the word barbecue.