The contributions the South has made to America are innumerable and varied. My beloved Virginia, for example, gave such priceless gifts as the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and seven presidents (I do not count William Henry Harrison, because he was a dumbass). We gave the nation Smithfield ham, Virginia peanuts, Eskimo pies, and the first truly American cookbook. And that's just a tiny portion of gifts from one part of the South. On the whole, we've given this country more goodies than China has given us cookie-cutter strip mall Chinese restaurants.
As far as the collective body of American music is concerned, we gave it a heart in the Blues, a soul in Jazz, a healthy set of reproductive organs in Rock 'n' Roll, and a redneck cousin who shows up to family reunions with a case of Bud Light and a bucket of KFC in Country. We were playing Jazz when the rest of the country was still singing folk songs about corn.
On the subject of food, the South is the birthplace of America's indigenous cuisine. We were eating fried chicken while Yankees were still boiling the hell out of everything and feeding lobsters to prisoners. The North may have been the birthplace of such classic American staples as pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers, but the South gave us jambalaya, Smithfield ham and Barbecue. Which would you rather have for Sunday dinner?
Speaking of Barbecue (were we? Oh yeah, that last paragraph), there are few more elementally perfect foodstuffs in existence. No less than esteemed Barbecue aficionado Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius, in his piece "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" for AllAboutJazz.com, has claimed that the subtle alchemy that exists in the interplay between smoke and meat is perhaps the most exacting cooking technique. When done well, it produces a glorious culinary triumph. Done poorly, it is a crushing disappointment on the scale of Star Wars Episode I
At this point, I'd like to clarify the meaning of the word Barbecue for our unfortunate non-Southern readers. Barbecue is a proper noun, it is pork cooked low and slow over direct heat. Any other meat cooked in that style is known as "barbecued." Any meat, including pork, that is cooked or preserved by smoke over indirect heat is "smoked." Hot dogs or hamburgers incinerated over high heat on the backyard Weber are "grilled." Steaks cooked well-done on a propane grill are "ruined."
With the advent of "foodie" culture and the increased interest in food media, more people are aware of Barbecue now than perhaps at any other time in our history. Barbecue joints are opening up in such unlikely places as hipster-infested Williamsburg, Brooklyn and hippie-clogged Portland
. The condiment aisle at the local grocery is no longer the province of a few brands of faux Kansas City
-style smoked ketchup sauces, even if that is still considered the de facto standard BBQ 'taste.' The holy trinity of Carolina saucesEastern NC style, Western or Lexington NC style, and midland SC styleare finding purchase among the KC Masterpiece and Sweet Baby Ray's, the same way craft beers found their way into the cooler with the pale yellow swill that passed for American beer in the dark days when Corona was still considered a fancy import.
Before we delve deeper into the obvious topic of Barbecue sauces, which some people (fools) believe is what 'makes' Barbecue, it might be helpful to first discuss the various regional styles. These differing methods and flavors can be considered hard and fast. No self-respecting Eastern NC style joint like Wilber's or Skylight Inn is going to put ketchup in their sauce, nor will a central Texas market style haven like Kreuz's or Smitty's serve you whole hog pulled pork. And if you went into a great midland SC place like Hite's or Sweatman's and smothered your Barbecue in Kraft barbecue sauce, they're going to go ahead and assume you came looking for an ass-whipping.
Barbecue is an art, and like any art, it can be divided into distinct schools. The Eastern Carolina school, which stretched along the coast up into Virginia and down into South Carolina and Georgia, uses a whole hog and a thin, vinegar and pepper sauce which I refer to as the Mother Sauce. The Western Carolina, or Lexington school, uses that faster cooking pork shoulder and a light tomato sauce that is essentially the Mother Sauce with ketchup and sugar. The midland South Carolina school also uses pork shoulder and, thanks to a significant population of German settlers, adds mustard instead of ketchup to the Mother for a tangy and sometimes sweet sauce.
The Memphis school focuses on ribs that are covered in a dry rub. There are other styles of BBQ in Memphis, though, and some that use a tomato-based sauce with the bittersweet edge of molasses. Memphis is also known for a unique creation called barbecue spaghetti, which is what it sounds like; the less-desirable meat from the underside of a rack of spareribs, diced and put over pasta with BBQ sauce.
The central Texas Market Style school uses beef as its primary protein, mostly the brisket. It is rubbed with salt and pepper, and slow cooked over direct heat. It is served on butcher paper with a slice of white bread or crackers. It comes from the German and Czech immigrants that settled in that region, and also includes smoked sausage because Germans. This school eschews sauce, and represents Barbecue almost at its most elemental. I can even overlook the fact that they use beef instead of pork, and not feel obligated to call them heretics.
The Kansas City school takes in all styles of meat, from pulled pork to ribs to brisket. The signature sauce is a heavy tomato sauce, sometimes smoky and sweet like most of the commercial sauces, but rooted in the famous hybrid of the Mother Sauce in a heavy tomato base from that temple of the art, Arthur Bryant's. Though I am a dedicated fan of the Eastern Carolina school, I must give respect to KC as the capital city of Barbecue. Over 100 BBQ restaurants in town, and a history of good Barbecue going back over a century.
Two other lesser known styles, too regionally contained to be considered schools in and of themselves, are the Western Kentucky style and the peculiar creation known as Alabama white sauce. Western Kentucky uses mutton as its primary protein, and uses as sauce a Worcestershire sauce based 'dip' made to complement the strong flavors of the meat. This style seems to be centered around Owensboro, south of Louisville
, and earns merit based on its adherence to the fundamental philosophy of Barbecue, which is to turn the less desirable cuts of meat into something trend-hopping foodies will drive hundreds of miles and pay two prices for because it's so authentic
Alabama white sauce is thankfully contained to that state but, even though I believe it is a godless chimera that has no place among civilized peoples, still has enough true believers to merit mention. Alabama white sauce is made with mayonnaise, vinegar and spices. I presume the mayo is not the unquestionably superior Duke's, which would lend it an air of legitimacy. Fortunately, the ungodly concoction is used primarily on chicken, so at least they're not screwing up perfectly good pork with the stuff.
The reason that the sweet and smoky KC sauce became the only thing most people think of when they hear the term "barbecue sauce" goes back to the 1960's, when major corporations went into overdrive trying to create a homogenous and convenient type of American cuisine that would appeal to everyone. This philosophy can be encapsulated in the McDonald's hamburger, which tastes the same in New York as it does in Los Angeles
as it does in Atlanta
as it does right up the street from me where they'd better damned well bring back the McRib or else there will be consequences.
Barbecue resisted being homogenized and nationalized because it is both art and science, pork with a side of alchemy. Every pitmaster has their own technique, their own secrets. Go to Lexington, North Carolina, where they have one BBQ joint for every 1,000 residents, and you can go through all of them without tasting the same thing twice. This is why they are called pitmasters, they have mastered all of the variables involved in turning the cheaper and tougher cuts of pork into something that rivals anything served in one of those fancy white tablecloth restaurants where they call green beans haricot verts
like they're better than you or something.
As it so happens, Kraft had its headquarters in Kansas City in the Sixties, and decided that the KC style 'smoked ketchup' sauce would appeal to the masses (especially if they weren't presented with any other choices). Kraft became the first company to market their version of barbecue sauce nationwide. Far from creating a single, marketable style of Barbecue, though, Kraft instead succeeded at giving us another generic condiment to use for everything from topping off a meatloaf to dipping chicken nuggets.
National Barbecue chains have been tried, and have largely failed, because the different regional schools have so many deeply invested adherents. I'd drive past ten good Lexington style joints, and hours out of my way, to get to Eastern style BBQ. No chain has been able to recreate the magic that is inherent in each of the best of the regional styles and appeal even to people who think Barbecue started out as a flavor of potato chips.
Though Barbecue is, as we've discussed (I assume you were all talking back to me as you read this), a particular and individual art form, here are a few guidelines concerning it that you should know as you hopefully dive into the subject more deeply like a teenager who just discovered sex:
1. It is almost always true that the sketchier a place looks on the outside, the better the food will be. Wilber's sits in a nondescript brick building, and the only hint of the Hall of Fame worthy Barbecue that awaits is an old Coca-Cola sign out front. Most really good Southern restaurants are marked by an old Coca-Cola sign. That's supposed to be our secret, but I trust you people.
2. If you don't smell wood smoke or see a woodpile nearby, drive on. As Alton Brown said, "You can cook a hog over gas. You'll surely go to Hell for it, but you can do it." I generally adhere to the rule that if can't smell the joint before you see it, it's probably not worth stopping.
3. Taste the meat first, before adding sauce. It shouldn't be dry and flavorless, and it shouldn't taste solely of smoke. There should be a good balance of smoke and meat flavors. The sauce should only enhance those flavors and enliven the palate. Be suspicious of any place where the meat comes pre-sauced, particularly if the meat is pulled pork or brisket. This does not necessarily stand for rib joints where the ribs should have a nice glaze of sauce if sauced as all. They should not come swimming in sauce, no matter how many bottles of their award-winning sauce they're selling. And ribs should not be fall off the bone tender, that means they're overcooked. Ribs should separate from the bone easily, but still maintain a little 'pull' to them.
4. Barbecue, in my opinion, should be capitalized as a proper noun out of respect. It should be lowercase when used as a verb or an adjective. The only acceptable abbreviation for it is BBQ. Refer to it by the twee hipster shorthand 'cue, and we're going to go ahead and assume you came looking for an ass-whipping.
5. There are three things a Southern Gentleman never does:
I. Never beats his wife, his kids or his dog
II. Never speaks ill of his friends or neighbors
III. Never puts slaw on his Barbecue
I will not hear such heresy as "that's how they do it in Carolina." Slaw, if it belongs anywhere at all on the plate, should be served on the side. I don't care if the owner's great-great-grandmother swam back to the sinking Titanic to recover her world famous secret slaw recipe. No slaw on Barbecue. I feel strongly about this.
6. Pay attention to the cars in the parking lot. If there are more locals than tourists, that's a good sign. If the parking lot is full of out-of-state plates, drive on. Look for where the locals eat, especially if it attracts all kinds. A 2015 Mercedes Benz parked next to a 1989 Ford F-250 is a very good sign. Barbecue knows no race or class. I've been to joints where I was the only white guy within a ten block radius, and I felt as welcome as family; a distant cousin maybe, but still.
7.Don't worry about the sides. Producing good Barbecue is such an exacting and time consuming task, most places don't stray too far from restaurant-grade boxes of macaroni and cheese and canned beans. There is no shame in that. You didn't drive all that way for the potato salad. This doesn't mean you can't get good sides in a good BBQ joint; the hushpuppies at Wilber's are spectacular, the collard greens at Luella's in Asheville
are revelatory, and the red slaw at Lexington Barbecue is not to be missed (on the side, of course). The meat is the star, so grade the side dishes on a curve. But if they have banana pudding, you should have some.
8. Don't expect the place to be too 'restaurant-y.' By that, I mean that some of the best BBQ joints are hole-in-the-wall places where their sole focus is to serve quality meat (I'll give you a few seconds to titter over the phrase "quality meat," and then again at the word "titter"). As with many Southern cuisines, presentation means nothing. Consider yourself lucky if you even get a real plate. So don't post a snotty review on Yelp, complaining about the crust around the top of the Texas Pete bottle, or the fact that the pitmaster is wearing an old, smoke-blackened baseball cap instead of a hairnet. And especially, don't complain loudly about these things while actually in the joint, or we will go ahead and assume you came looking for an ass-whipping.
9. Recognize the art, not just the school. The predominant style of Barbecue in my corner of the Commonwealth (and most of Virginia, in fact) is influenced by the Western, or Lexington school. There is still good Barbecue to be found, though. I had a very nice meal the other day from Three Little Pigs
in Daleville, VA, and I have no trouble driving an hour to either Foothill Momma's
in Lexington (not that one, the other one) or Bootleg BBQ
in the People's Republic of Floyd. I do love the Eastern NC school still, but I appreciate good Barbecue wherever it is found and whatever the school.
10. Even after all my nonsense, please remember that the whole purpose of Barbecue is to feed the body and bring people together. As with any great art, it also invokes passion and begs obsession. As with anything of true consequence, the last and Cardinal rule of Barbecue is,: Never Take It Too Seriously
. Eating Barbecue should be a happy occasion, not one fraught with geek-like fixation on minutiae. As C.S. Lewis said, "One murders to dissect," and it is easy to kill a good plate of BBQ by overanalyzing it. You get so wrapped up in whether or not those were cracked Pondicherry peppercorns and a hint of juniper berry in the sauce that you've missed the magnificent gestalt
of Barbecue. It's the meat, the smoke, the sauce, the canned collard greens, the mediocre mac and cheese, the Styrofoam plate and plastic fork, and the waitress who calls you 'sugar.' And it is wonderful. Don't miss it just because you're intent on figuring out whether the pork came from a Tamworth or a Berkshire hog. There is also no room at the table for the dour, self-serious, perpetually unsatisfied pedagogue. Come down here with the attitude that no one knows BBQ but you and it is incumbent upon you to teach us heathens what real
Barbecue is because you've eaten at all ten of the best Zagat-rated BBQ joints in New York and have seen every episode of Barbecue Pitmasters
, and we're going to go ahead and assume you came looking for an ass-whipping.
Till next time, kids, exit your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.