This story first appeared in the Wine Spectator.
To know barbecue, real barbecue, you have to first 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 held in the same reverence as football.
But while barbecue is primarily focused 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, though 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-time 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 often called "pulled pork" because it is cooked so tender it can literally be pulled off the bone. "Chopped ham" is the term used at places like Maurice’s Gourmet Barbecue in West Columbia, SC because the hind leg or fresh ham is also used. But according to Jim Tabb, a barbecue judge from Tryon, NC, 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 which it slathers on the meat while it cooks over hickory wood—the fuel of choice in the Carolinas—throughout the 24-hour cooking process, long even by barbecue standards. Whether the barbecue 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 in western North Carolina and without tomato in the eastern part of the state. When they are used, judicious amounts of sauce are added to the pulled and chopped meat before it is served on a hamburger bun, often topped with coleslaw. A mail-order sampling of Maurice’s chopped ham revealed rich, lightly sweet meat that reminded me of French pork rillettes. The flavor also came through nicely when the meat was combined with coleslaw on a bun.
Memphis, Tennessee claims to be the pork barbecue of the world. While perhaps 100 places in the city and surrounding area serve pulled pork shoulder, Memphis is known for pork ribs. At Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, the pork ribs are "2-1/4 and down," meaning 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 that 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 barbecue sauce is served on the side. The Vergos’ ribs I got by mail had a good spice and smoky 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 from one to three years old cooked over outdoor pits.
The Moonlite Diner cooks quarters of 90-pound mutton over locally grown hickory wood for about 12 hours at 275 degrees. (Early barbecue was done over open pits—hence the name "pit barbecue"—but most pits are now enclosed, oven-like 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 pepper 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, an area just south of Austin is the Mecca of barbecue. Here beef, particularly the brisket, reigns. At Louie Mueller’s Barbecue in Taylor, they like to keep things simple. The brisket is seasoned with just salt and pepper, then cooked from 4 to 6 hours over post oak, a plentiful local hardwood. The sliced meat is then served with a side sauce of watered down ketchup and onions. Mueller’s brisket is sensational, moist, beefy, and lightly smoked. Ask for some sauce to go if you order by mail. Not vital, but it adds a nice peppery accent.
At Kreuz (rhymes with Heitz) Market in Lockhart, 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 that it doesn’t dry out.
Kreuz "doesn’t use any sauce and never will," said Schmidt. Instead, it serves the sliced beef with cottony white bread (a common barbecue accompaniment) or saltines, pickles, onions, cheddar or jalapeno cheese, jalapeno 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 rail head and a point for western migration," said Wells. In Kansas City you can find virtually any kind of barbecue, but burnt ends are the local specialty. Burnt ends are the edges of the brisket that get, well, burnt, after long cooking. 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 drink beer; a long neck bottle of Lone Star would be perfect with Texas brisket, for example. But wine isn’t out of the question, especially one like zinfandel that matches the all-American nature of barbecue. I can hear the Stars and Stripes already.
HOW TO GET IT
Real barbecue is best eaten on the spot, but if you can’t make it to, say, Owensboro, Kentucky, several of the following barbecue spots do mail order.
- Corky’s, Memphis, TN (800) 926-7597. Mail order available.
- Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous, Memphis, TN (888) 464-7359. Mail order available (Two slabs of ribs with sauce, seasoning and popcorn, $79.50, with slaw an additional $5.00.
- Gates Bar-B-Q (five locations), Kansas City, MO (800) 662-7427. Sauce and seasoning only by mail.
- King’s Family Restaurant, Kingston, NC (800) 332-6465 Mail order available.
- Kreuz Market, Lockhart, TX (512) 398-2361.
- Louie Mueller’s Barbecue, Taylor, TX (512) 352-6206. Mail order available (Whole beef brisket, $43)
- Maurice’s Gourmet Barbeque, West Columbia, SC (800) 628-7423. Seven restaurants and mail order (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, and chopped mutton, $3.89/pound).
- Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ and Catering, Kansas City, MO (913) 722-3366.
- Sonny Bryan’s (eight locations), Dallas, TX (800)-576-6697. Mail order available.