Kamloops News

THOMPSON: What makes good barbecue is a complex question


OPINION


Ask a hundred people to describe what makes good barbecue, and you might get a hundred different answers.

Barbecue - also variously known as barbeque, barbicue, barbique, bar-b-cue, bar-b-que, bar-b-q, BBQ and countless other unintentional misspellings - can be found throughout North America.

I’m not talking about cooking outdoors on a grill, what most Canadians think of when you say barbecue. In the U.S. it is something you eat, a noun not a verb. In the Deep South it is almost always pork — ribs, pulled or sliced pork shoulder or butt. In Texas, it is almost always beef…ribs or brisket.

And, yes, you can have barbecued chicken or barbecued sausages (notice it’s an adjective)…but in the South and Texas, if you ask someone, “Do you want some barbecue?” In their minds eye they’re seeing a slab of ribs (pork or beef), pulled pork or brisket.

Every region in America - indeed, all 50 states - has barbecue, but make no mistake…there’s more bad barbecue than good out there. You won’t find me looking for barbecue in Montana or New Hampshire or even in Kentucky (more or less a Southern state) because too many people insist on taking something simple - slow cooking meat with smoke - and making it something different.

First of all, barbecue isn’t barbecue if it isn’t cooked in a real pit smoker. It will always have a  so-called smoke ring whether pork or beef…an eight to ten millimetre layer of pinkish meat beneath a nice crust. It is desirable…completely safe to eat…and the only assurance of pit smoking.

If you start monkeying with real barbecue by adding some beloved regional food…like pineapple in Hawaii or cheese in Wisconsin…well, that might be a thing…but, as we say in the South, it sure as hell ain’t barbecue.

The truth is barbecue is about as imprecise a science/art/voodoo as you’ll find among culinary categories. I proved this 12 years ago when I travelled across 11 Southern and Mid-Western states in as many days…eating nothing but barbecue…three meals a day…in search of the barbecue Holy Grail.

Some states - for instance North Carolina - can’t even settle on what barbecue is from one end of the state to the other. There’s Eastern style - using the whole hog or as they say, “everything but the squeal” - which is sauced after smoking with vinegar and pepper…no tomato sauce at all.

Then, Western style - also called Piedmont or Lexington style - uses vinegar, tomatoes, red pepper flakes and other spices. Likewise, you won’t get any agreement on coleslaw - a standard side dish throughout the South - some use mayonnaise, others not. Some eat cole-slaw on a pork barbecue sandwich…others…not so much. Barbecue is…well, complicated.

South Carolinians make barbecue with a tomato base…but they also have a mustard base sauce called Golden Carolina that many swear by…and I love it as a change of pace.

Georgians tend to eat barbecue with a sweet, sometimes hot tomato-based sauce…often called Memphis style.

In Alabama, you’ll find tomato-based, both sweet and hot, and uniquely…a mayonnaise-based sauce.

If the South ever tries to rebel and secede from the Union again…the whole thing can be stopped by simply proclaiming one style of barbecue the “Official Barbecue of the South.” No one agrees…even within the same state…much less among 13 states.

I drove some 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, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri…eating at places both famous to millions and unknown but to folks in a five-mile radius. 

I almost always sampled ribs and pulled pork…some brisket when they had it…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.

Honestly, I found some good barbecue in most states. On occasion, I discovered great barbecue…in Mississippi and Arkansas and South Carolina. There was no barbecue Holy Grail though…but the search was serendipitous. 

It was 12 years later, in fact, just last week…that I found barbecue that I could eat the rest of my life…never daring to try another. It might well be the Holy Grail. I found it just a couple miles from our horse farm at the lonely crossroads of State Road 24 and U.S. Alternate Highway 27 in Bronson, FL.

A small smoker wagon with a single small sliding window parks there every Friday and Saturday in an unpaved, limestone parking lot and serves up pulled pork, pork spare ribs and brisket. The sign emblazoned on the wagon reads, “Heavy B’s Bar-B-Que and Catering” with a simple but proud tag line: “Life’s too short for ordinary good. BBQ at its best!!!” The three exclamation points leave no doubt.

Heavy B is Bruce Greenlee - a strapping man that in his 50s still looks like a football middle linebacker - and his pretty wife, Amelia. Bruce retired after 35 years with the government and Amelia has worked for the University of Florida for 30 years. They love what they’re doing now...and it shows in the real pit barbecue and side dishes - potato salad, baked beans, mac and cheese and green beans that came from one or the other’s mom or grandma.

The Greenlees are happy…you can see it in their smiles. They love the way their customers love their barbecue. The only problem, says Bruce, is their kids aren’t at all interested in caring on their barbecue tradition.

“I offered my son a chance to sell BBQ just on Saturdays for $1,000,” Bruce laments, adding with a wistful smile, “He turned me down…maybe one day.”

Meanwhile, I won’t be making barbecue much here in Florida. I’d rather drive two miles to Bruce’s and Amelia’s wagon…where they serve up the barbecue Holy Grail.

— 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.


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