THOMPSON: My search for the southern barbecue holy grail


OPINION


As we all know, each year there are four seasons…Fall, Winter, Spring and Barbecue. You might spell it barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-q or BBQ. But to be clear, barbecue does not mean simply cooking outdoors. In the South where I was raised barbecue means just one thing…pork. It can be pulled, chopped or sliced…or ribs…but it is undeniably pork.

Southerners - often with a dismissive look - will tell you that what Texans cook and eat isn’t barbecue. When Texans say ribs...they mean beef ribs. And as we say in the South…"You cook what you have."

True enough, I can’t imagine a movie with cowboys herding pigs…I’m not even sure that’s a thing. Besides beef ribs, there are plenty of Texans, Georgians, North Carolinians, Canadians from Montreal and those who celebrate Jewish Passover - among others - who cook and eat beef brisket. Beef ribs and brisket are gloriously good…but they, too, are not barbecue to most Southerners. Beef has its place, but it’s not in this column.

Nearly a decade ago I undertook what seemed a perfectly sane pursuit…a pilgrimage in search of great Southern barbecue. In a route that more closely resembled the meanderings of a sprayed cockroach than a Google Map itinerary, I sought the barbecue holy grail…the best ribs and the best pulled pork I could find.

I drove about 1,200 miles on Interstate highways and two-lane back roads through big cities and small towns in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri…eating at places both famous to millions and unknown but to folks in a five-mile radius. And I did it all in ten days.

In those ten days alone I consumed enough pork to be the poster boy for the National Pork Producers Council. Specifically, I ate 29 consecutive meals of barbecue…almost always eating ribs and pulled pork…and a variety of side dishes that ranged from cole slaws to baked beans and fried green tomatoes to fried okra. I usually ate no earlier than 11 A.M., again late afternoon and often late at night…hardly a healthy regimen.

I gained ten pounds…and I must admit…I didn’t eat barbecue for about six weeks. Even so, I never wavered from my mission. I never tired of the plates put in front of me…or cut short the people who talked passionately about their versions of their favourite food…barbecue.

I was never in doubt of being served pork when I asked for barbecue in the nine Southern states and one Midwestern state (Sorry, Missouri isn’t Southern…and I included it only because of its undeniably long barbecue history).

What varies widely with Southern barbecue is what goes on it…whether a dry rub….a sauce…or both. Those considerations alone - sauce or not…hot or sweet…tomato or mustard based - are the stuff of bar fights and misdemeanour arrests. Southerners take barbecue seriously.

Over the years I have talked with scores of barbecue pit masters…people who really know their stuff. There are some undeniable truths. The first and most important absolute truth…if you’re looking for good Southern barbecue it’ll come from a real pit of some sort. If you don’t see smoke rolling out of a chimney…be it shack or fancy building…don’t bother stopping.

Some other truths: Like any food, you can undercook or overcook barbecue…and neither is satisfying. Undercooked isn’t tender and overcooked is mushy. Great barbecue marries real meat flavour, smoke and spices…and there are different ways to get there. All, however, require time. Great barbecue isn’t fast food.

Pig roasts are popular…I did one last Saturday…and done right it is impressive to see a whole pig on a spit or splayed out over slow glowing coals. But truth be known…it is not the best way to cook pork. Why do you think butchers cut pigs up…the various cuts all require different temperatures and times?

Everyone has their favourite type of barbecue…and largely that depends on where you live…and how much you travel. You’re not likely to convince someone from Alabama that putting cole slaw on a pulled pork sandwich like they do in North Carolina makes sense. Likewise, trying to persuade someone from Memphis that you should slather mustard-based sauce from South Carolina on a pig…is a lost cause.

My dark-rum marinaded pulled pork sandwich on a toasted Brioche bun with Brie cheese, raspberry coulis, hot peppers and a homemade french-fried onion ring. Yeah, it’s even better than it looks.
My dark-rum marinaded pulled pork sandwich on a toasted Brioche bun with Brie cheese, raspberry coulis, hot peppers and a homemade french-fried onion ring. Yeah, it’s even better than it looks.

But what I’ve learned over the years…and especially during my ten-day barbecue odyssey…is eat what the locals eat. Even if it’s not your favourite…done right…you’ll end up cleaning your plate.

Upon reflection, it’s hard to say which barbecue was best during my nine-state romp. Here, however, in no certain order are some highlights. Bad barbecue joints in the South are like dogs that chase cars…they don’t last long. So, all these places are still going strong if you ever make your way South.

In Memphis, TN you’ll find Central BBQ and Payne’s in Midtown and Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous or ‘Vous as it is known locally in the South Main Historic District. Central and ‘Vous are gussied up compared to Payne’s former gas station turned no-nonsense cinder-block eating establishment…but all three offer up good ‘cue.

Payne’s pulled pork sandwich is near pig perfection…a combination of chewy crisp outer pieces and slow-cooked tender pork. The sauce is tangy…and so is the cole slaw. I love the ribs at both Central and ‘Vous…but I give the edge to Central because the sides are a little better and the service friendlier…more typically Southern.

There are a half-dozen great barbecue joints in Kansas City…a city split between two states…Kansas and Missouri. I’ve been to all of them…Arthur Bryant’s, Jack Stack BBQ, Oklahoma Joe’s, Winslows BBQ, Danny Edwards and Gates Bar-B-Q. Most have been serving up great-tasting pork for decades…Bryant’s almost a century old.

I can’t say much for some Southern cities…Atlanta has lots of barbecue restaurants…and most of them simply don’t measure up to hundreds scattered throughout the South. I’ve often wondered why someone from Memphis or Kansas City didn’t open a store there.

South Carolina barbecue with its tangy mustard-based sauce is pretty good stuff…especially around Columbia. But it’s not the go-to version most barbecue fanatics love. Like most Southerners…I like sweet and hot, but leave the tomato base out completely? Again, if you’re born and raised in southwestern South Carolina…that’s what you know.

Another thing I found during my ten-day, hog-wild trip…there are some great barbecue spots in the most unlikely places. I stopped at a crossroads 20 miles outside of Hattiesburg, MS…at a no-name barbecue stand…a small trailer with a big homemade smoker alongside and a sign that simply read, “BBQ.”

I pulled off the road…walked to the trailer window and asked the proprietor, “How are the ribs?”

He smiled, and said, “Well, sir…you tell me.” He cut one rib, dabbed in his homemade sauce and handed it to me through the window. It was ever-so-slightly charred on the outside and wonderfully tender…perfect. We both smiled…I ordered an entire rack.

The old man - somewhere between 60 and 100 - had lived in Mississippi his entire life. “Once,” he said. “I went to Birmingham…but that was years ago.”

As I said, It’s hard to name a favourite barbecue joint on my quest…what’s your favourite kiss? I found something pretty good about every one…from places with table cloths to places where you either stood outside or sat at a rickety picnic table.

What I do know is the barbecue and conversation along the way were priceless. Every pitmaster had some secret ingredient or technique…but you could taste the love in every bite. The trip - with countless details not revealed here - is still firmly burned into my memory…almost a decade later.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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