All Fired Up!
There may be as many barbecue styles as devotees, but everyone can agree it's an essential taste
By Sam Gugino
To know barbecue, real barbecue, you first have to realize that cooking hot dogs, hamburgers or halibut over charcoal briquettes in the backyard isn't barbecuing. It's grilling. Barbecue -- which is really a noun, not a verb -- is meat like pork shoulder, beef brisket and ribs cooked long and slow over hardwood until it becomes deliciously smoky and buttery soft.
To lump together real barbecue with grilling is like mentioning Southeastern Conference and Ivy League football in the same breath -- a good analogy because in places where barbecue is king, like Texas, Tennessee and the Carolinas, it is viewed with the same reverence as football.
But while barbecue is focused primarily in Southern and border states, it is growing in popularity all around the country. "Barbecue is an exploding phenomenon," says Carolyn Wells, executive director of the Kansas City Barbecue Society. "We've gone through all the ethnic foods and now we're coming back to our roots. Barbecue is the only truly indigenous American cuisine."
Like jazz and the blues, barbecue had its origins in the slave culture of the South with throwaway cuts of meat like pork ribs and jowls. In the Carolinas, whole hog barbecue -- called "pig pickin'" because the cooked hog is laid on a table and picked at by diners -- is a long-standing tradition. Each barbecue region is passionate about the type or cut of meat used, the fuel on which to cook it and the sauce (if any) to put on it.
In North and South Carolina, barbecue is pork shoulder, and it is often called "pulled pork" because it is cooked until it becomes so tender that it can be pulled off the bone by hand. "Chopped ham" is the term used at places like Maurice's Gourmet Barbecue in West Columbia, S.C., because the hind leg or fresh ham is also used. But according to Jim Tabb, a barbecue judge from Tryon, N.C., Boston butt is the best cut because "it's the fattest muscle on the hog."
Maurice's uses a traditional South Carolina mustard-based barbecue sauce slathered on the meat while it is cooked over hickory wood -- the fuel of choice in the Carolinas -- for 24 hours, a long time even by barbecue standards. Whether sauce should be applied during or after cooking -- or at all -- is a major point of contention among barbecue aficionados. "People mistakenly think barbecue is the sauce, but if you have a good spice rub you don't need sauce," Tabb says.
Sauces in North Carolina are vinegar-based, with tomato added in western North Carolina and without tomato in the eastern part of the state. When sauce is used, judicious amounts are added to the pulled and chopped meat before it is served on a hamburger bun, often topped with cole slaw. A mail-order sampling of Maurice's chopped ham revealed rich, lightly sweet meat that reminded me of pork rillettes. The flavor also came through nicely when the meat was combined with cole slaw on a bun.
Memphis, Tenn., claims to be the pork barbecue capital of the world. While perhaps 100 places in the city and the surrounding area serve pulled pork shoulder, Memphis is best known for pork ribs. At Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous, the pork ribs are "2 1/4 and down." That means a slab weighing 2 1/4 pounds, larger than baby back ribs (which barbecue purists wouldn't touch because they are not true ribs) but smaller than the "3 and down" ribs at many old-fashioned places. (Maurice's uses "5 and down.")
While most Memphis rib joints cook their ribs "wet" -- meaning they apply a sauce, usually tomato-based, during cooking -- Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous uses a dry-rub spice mix of chili powder, cumin, paprika and oregano. After cooking over hardwood charcoal, the ribs are brushed with a light vinegar solution and more spices. A tomato-based barbecue sauce is served on the side. The Vergos' ribs I got by mail had a good spice and smoke flavor but they weren't nearly meaty enough.
Daviess County in Kentucky may have the most unusual barbecue tradition in the country -- mutton. According to Ken Bosely, whose family owns the Moonlite Diner in Owensboro, the tradition goes back to Catholic church socials that featured sheep ranging in age from one to three years cooked over outdoor pits.
The Moonlite Diner cooks quarters of 90-pound mutton over locally grown hickory wood for about 12 hours at 275° F -- low temperatures are de rigueur for barbecue. (Early barbecue was done over open pits -- hence the name "pit barbecue" -- but most pits now are enclosed, ovenlike contraptions.) While the meat cooks, it is basted with a solution of Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, lemon, salt, pepper and water. The meat is then pulled off the bone by hand, chopped and served on a hamburger bun with a weaker version of the basting sauce. Slices of the hind leg are called mutton ham.
I loved the strong lamby taste and lightly peppered flavor of the chopped mutton I got by mail, but it may not suit everyone. The mutton ham, however, was rather dreary in taste, texture and appearance. (I generally don't like my meats taupe-colored.)
In Texas, just south of Austin is the mecca of barbecue. Here beef, particularly brisket, reigns. At Louie Mueller's Barbecue in Taylor, they like to keep things simple. The brisket is seasoned only with salt and pepper, then cooked for 4 to 6 hours over post oak, a plentiful local hardwood. The meat is then sliced and served with a sauce of onions and watered-down ketchup on the side. Mueller's brisket beef is sensationa l-- moist, beefy and lightly smoked. Ask for some sauce if you order by mail; it's not vital, but it adds a nice peppery accent.
At Kreuz (rhymes with Heitz) Market in Lockhart, Texas, 95 percent of the beef sold is shoulder clod. "It's leaner than brisket and cooks faster," says Keith Schmidt, whose family has owned the restaurant since 1948. Because it has less fat than brisket, the meat, which is seasoned with salt, pepper and cayenne, must be cooked carefully so it doesn't dry out.
Kreuz "doesn't use any sauce and never will," says Schmidt. Instead, the beef is sliced and served with cottony white bread (a common barbecue accompaniment) or saltines, pickles, onions, cheddar cheese, jalapeño peppers, tomatoes and avocados. There are no plates or forks; you eat with plastic knives on butcher paper.
Kansas City considers itself ecumenical on the subject of barbecue. "Kansas City is a melting pot for barbecue because it was a railhead and a point for western migration," says the Barbecue Society's Wells. In Kansas City, you can find virtually any kind of barbecue, but burnt ends -- the edges of the brisket that get, well, burnt after long cooking -- are the local specialty. Burnt-end devotees will take other parts of the cooked brisket, cut them up and blacken them to get even more burnt ends.
Sweetened iced tea is the drink of choice with barbecue, though many people drink beer. Wine isn't out of the question, though, especially an all-American version like Zinfandel. I can hear "Stars and Stripes" already.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is coauthor of Matthew Kenney's Mediterranean Cooking.
How to Get It
Real barbecue is best eaten on the spot, but if you can't make it to, say, Owensboro, Ky., several of the following barbecue spots do mail order.
Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous Memphis, Tenn. (888) 464-7359. Mail order available (two slabs of ribs with sauce, seasoning, cole slaw and popcorn, $66).
Corky's Memphis, Tenn. (800) 926-7597. Mail order available.
Gates Bar-B-Q Kansas City, Mo.; five locations (800) 662-7427. Sauce and seasoning only by mail.
King's Family Restaurant Kinston, N.C. (800) 332-6465. Mail order available.
Kreuz Market Lockhart, Texas (512) 398-2361.
Louie Mueller's Barbecue Taylor, Texas (512) 352-6206. Mail order available (whole brisket, $43).
Maurice's Gourmet Barbeque West Columbia, S.C.; seven restaurants (800) 628-7423. Mail order available (3 pounds chopped ham barbecue plus sauce, $52.25).
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Owensboro, Ky. (502) 684-8143. Mail order available (sliced mutton, $6.75/pound; chopped mutton, $3.89/pound).
Oklahoma Joe's BBQ and Catering Kansas City, Mo. (913) 722-3366.
Sonny Bryan's Dallas; eight locations (800) 576-6697. Mail order available.
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