Struttin' With Some Barbecue

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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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.



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