This is a page in which we indulge our enjoyment of southern barbecue. We do not yet review any Texas barbecue (which is another animal altogether), though we have no prejudices against barbecuing a cow if you have one lying about the house. As you'll see, we believe in eating the barbecue of the region in which one finds oneself, and if we find ourselves in Texas, we'll indulge. But for the rest of the South, pigs rule. More on our philosophy of barbecue below.
Before we get to the inspirational readings
and, of course, the reviews, (and you can click
on the words to go directly to either), we should first probably deal directly
The trouble is that people who come from states which think they understand what real barbecue is argue passionately about it all the time. Those who have such vehement feelings should know that our philosophy has always been to go with the local stuff, just as one drinks the local wine or eats the local cheese in Europe. We'll talk more about our barbecue du pays philosophy later. Despite the pig motif to our wallpaper behind this web page, we want to assure you Texans that, yes, we would order barbecued beef in Austin. But never in Lexington, North Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee, or Clarksdale, Mississippi. We do not order Big Macs in Paris, or escargots in Tennessee. (And no, we wouldn't go with the "local stuff" barbecue in New York City, we'd go to a deli.)
Most of the South agrees on pig (though some argue over whether to smoke the whole pig or just the shoulder), but Texans insist on beef, and the two meats overlap in transitional zones like Kansas City and parts of Arkansas. Owensboro, Kentucky, which we have not visited, is said to be famous for barbcued mutton. Chicken is done most places but is usually subsidiary, though here and there places are known for it (and one place in Memphis brags on its Cornish game hens, which we didn't try). But the pig is what most people mean in the South when they think of barbecue.
Of course, meat isn't the only thing barbecue lovers fight over. There are also sauces, what one does with coleslaw, and what the proper sides are.
Sauces vary from the thick red stuff of much of the south to the mustard-based sauces of South Carolina (and a few enclaves in Tidewater Virginia). North Carolinians are, well, downright vehement about the distinction between Eastern North Carolina -- basically just vinegar and peppers, a low-cal and potentially quite potent brew -- and Western North Carolina, where the sauce picks up a tomato base. Texas sauces are hearty because they're made for beef, but the very best pork barbecue, if smoked long enough and tender enough, can be magnificent with no sauce at all, or with just a touch of "finishing sauce". The occasional northern horror of actually cooking the meat in the sauce is, of course, never done. The meat is slow-smoked, preferably over a hardwood fire. We're talking pit smoking here, not backyard grill, folks.
An issue that isn't really quite about sauce is the question of dry versus wet ribs. Ribs are a special and important subset of barbecue of course, and we need to note that dry ribs -- which are prepared not with a sauce with a dry, powdery rub that includes cayenne and other spices -- are not some ancient tradition, but were invented in our lifetimes by the (justly famous) Rendezvous restaurant in Memphis. (Elvis, we're told, used to have Rendezvous ribs flown to Las Vegas for him.) They've now spread to a number of rib places around the country. We like them both ways, but should note that cholesterol watchers probably are better sticking with a pulled pork sandwich, which is leaner than ribs anyway.
Then there's the question of coleslaw. Do you put it on the sandwich or on the side? Is it creamy like in Eastern North Carolina, or not so, like in the Piedmont and West. (In Lexington the coleslaw almost blends right into the tender pork.) Outside of Lexington, we tend to take our slaw on the side, which some consider heresy. In Lexington, it's too good on the sandwich not to eat it there. If you don't know where Lexington is, well, read on through these pages.
Speaking of sides, should you have
the Brunswick stew of North Carolina, or the apparently similar Kentucky
burgoo? How about hush puppies (in the deep South, hush puppies go with
catfish, but in North Carolina, with barbecue)? And in that wonderful region
known as the Mississippi Delta (famously and accurately defined as stretching
from the Peabody Hotel Lobby in Memphis to Catfish Row in Vicksburg), a
common side is tamales. (This is such a wonderful combination it should
spread further, but seemingly hasn't. Even most alleged "Memphis-style"
places outside Memphis don't serve them.) Baked beans are pretty universal,
but we've never matched the "five-bean bake" we found at a carryout (known
as Buckwheat's) combined with an air
conditioning repair shop in Hiawasse, Georgia. You'll find the review
in these pages.
We want, first of all, to say that our fundamental philosophy is, as already stated, that one eats the barbecue du pays, in whatever region one finds oneself. We agree almost entirely with John Shelton Reed of the University of North Carolina (and this quote can also serve as the first of our inspirational readings):
Black and white Southerners have had their little disagreements in the past, of course, and so have flatlanders and hillbillies, rednecks and gentry. Politics and religion have usually been at least as good for an argument here as anywhere else. But if you want a topic with real divisive potential, something really fissionable, let's talk barbecue.Pretty much our sentiments exactly. North Carolina is, most would agree, the pork sandwich capital of the world (give Tennessee ribs), but it's not the same in Greensboro as in Goldsboro, and if you think it should be, you don't share our barbecue du pays philosophy. So if you are convinced that anyone who eats Eastern (or Western) North Carolina barbecue is a barbarian, or that tamales must never go with barbecue, you probably will disagree with some of our conclusions. But if you have an open mind (and an empty stomach), we hope you'll agree that the best of every regional barbecue style is worth tracking down. (Well, we're not sure about that Owensboro mutton, but then we've never tried it.)
In this respect (others too, of course) barbecue is unlike grits. Grits glue the South together, if you'll excuse the image . . . Smoked meat is a subject folks can get excited about, you know what I mean? Barbecue drives a wedge between Texas (beef), the Carolinas (pork), and completely isolates those parts of Kentucky around Owensboro (mutton). Even porcivores can't agree: barbecue divides western North Carolina (tomato), from eastern North Carolina (no tomato), not to mention from South Carolina (mustard). You might say barbecue pits Southerners against one another. (Sorry.)
Now, personally, I don't regret these hard feelings. If they keep the South's proud local barbecue traditions alive -- well, long may they wave. When a "Texas-style" barbecue joint opened in my Carolina hometown, I was delighted to see it go out of business within a year. Not that I don't like brisket; I love it, in Texas. But eating that stuff here was like drinking Dr. Pepper in Munich -- just not right, you understand? Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Europe's wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes. Let's keep it that way.
-- John Shelton Reed, "Thank You for Smoking", in
Whistling Dixie: Dispatches From the South,
1990, pp. 100-101.
Now, in addition to Reed's remarks already quoted above, some other
inspirational readings from various barbecue scriptures to
set the theme (or, if you prefer, go on to the reviews):
|Virginia's First Barbecue: Mastodon|
|The One Thing All Agree On: John Egerton|
|Missouri||Nebraska (Yes, Nebraska)|
|Arkansas||Texas (No Entries Yet)|
Radiocarbon dating from the archeological dig in the Saltville Valley shows that the mastodon was butchered and cooked over open fires about 14,000 years ago, said Jerry McDonald, team leader of the research sites.
That's 2,500 years before the earliest conclusive
evidence of human life in North America.
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John Egerton is a distinguished historian of the modern South, based at Vanderbilt. But he has a second fame as a writer on (and, apparently, eater of) Southern Cooking. His book Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History (Chapel Hill: New Edition 1993) is the sort of book that makes you hungry; it's a mix of essays, quotations, reviews of restaurants, and recipes, and much more. A sort of burgoo of good stuff, and we could simply steal all the quotations from his barbecue chapter as they're all apropos. He has also written a number of essays collected in a smaller book, appropriately called Side Orders, in which the following appears:
We fuss a lot in a friendly way about barbecue in the South -- about pork versus beef, about finger etiquette, about basic bread and side dishes and the sauce mystique. There are more barbecue factions and smoked-meat sects around here, each with its own hair-splitting distinctions, than there are denominations in the far-flung Judeo-Christian establishment.We have to say, though, that the real thing is still out there, and in many places those who know what real barbecue is are going to be on guard to see that it does not in fact die out.
But some things are too important to be left in disagreement, and so true that even infidels and heretics cannot deny them convincingly. Among these universal verities is this absolute declaration: You can't reach the highest pinnacle of true barbecue without hardwood smoke, a slow fire, and time, precious time.
No matter how you cut it, slice it, chop it, or pull it, you can't make real barbecue in a hurry. "If you can hear it sizzling," a wise apostolic brother once told me, "your fire's too hot." To di it right requires time in the pit--twelve, fifteen, eighteen hours or more. The ritual of the all-night vigil behind the glowing coals has been repeated so many times from the Rappahannock to the Rio Grande that it has long since taken its rightful place in Southern mysticism and folklore.
And finally, in the golden light of a Southern dawn, there comes an exhilarating moment of truth when every message of the senses is saying in unison, "It's ready," and the first charred, crusty tender, smoke- and sauce-anointed taste of the meat confirms it. Truly, there is nothing quite so fine as genuine barbecue at the instant of its readiness . . .
[But, in the commercial world] . . . Some abominable so-called meat, masquerading as barbecue, is being peddled out there, and the perpetrators need to be called to account. Using liquid smoke, gas heat, store-bought sauce and the good Lord only knows what other sacrileges, these unscrupulous peddlers are hastening the death of real barbecue by giving it such a bad name that only good riddance offers any promise of relief.
Such outrageous behavior makes me appreciate all the more those dwindling few practitioners of true pit artistry . . . When I go into, say, Bozo's, on the western edge of Mason, Tennessee, and ask for a plain brown pig--that's a pulled pork sandwich on a warm bun, no sauce, no slaw--I can be confidently assured that what I'll get is a straight-from-the-pit mound of succulent shoulder meat, a perfect combination of dark, crusty outside and light, tender inside pieces near the pinnacle of their truest callling.
The Bozo folks and the precious few like them are the remnant, the last of the smoke people. When thy are gone, there won't be any more real barbecue left. I hope I'm gone before that happens.
--John Egerton, Side Orders, Atlanta: 1990, p. 67-69
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