Sunday, November 23, 2008


Barbacue is the usual pronunciation, BBQ the abbreviation, and 'cue is a word I've seen only in novels and restaurant reviews by folks from OFF who are trying hard to adopt the local vernacular to impress OTHER folks from off with their new-found language skills. I've certainly never heard a real-live person call it that.

We spent a few days with the children and grandchildren in Georgia not long ago, and the evening we arrived, driving our oldest Granddaughter home, we three stopped and had dinner with DS#3. He recommended a place he liked, way out on the Interstate, and we had some really good ribs, some excellent potato salad, with ordinary beans and slaw, forty-weight sweet tea, and two bites of a ketchup-sauced, pulled-to-threads sandwich, which came pre-made, wrapped in that foil-backed paper so beloved of middle-school cafeterias. Opening that wrapper was nostalgia, déjà vu and flashback all in one.

DS had Brunswick and “Lion Ribs,” which looked just like the ones we were having---I have no idea what the difference is. I recounted our evening to an Internet friend, and she said she might as well have been opening the South China Post and trying to comprehend the cricket scores, as all the terms and dishes I spoke of.

And so I reassured her:

Any and everything I could clear up for you, I'll be glad to translate. Southern Barbecue is a thing unto itself, a long-cooked, Heaven-scented, fall-apart bit of Glory here on Earth. Any shape or size or amount of pork, parked on the rungs of a long-used pit, and given the time and attention of a master Pit-Man---that's entirely a food group on its own.

From the first rub, be it dry with salt and ground pepper and whatever other spices and dried herbs please the cook (and whose esoteric, exacting combination of special flavors has probably been in the family for a LONG time) or wet, with a rag-on-a-stick mop dipped into vinegar-oil-lemon-juice-garlic and any of myriad combinations (but never sauce---not 'til the end; tomato and/or sugar, the basic components of any Deep South sauce will burn black from the get-go, giving even the smoke a tang of bitter regret at the travesty).

It makes me shudder to see even Miss Ina, champion cook that she is, douse raw chicken parts entirely in a whole bowl of red stuff, then slap it on the grill. It just 'taint fittin', and they smile and eat it either 'cause they're on TV or they don't know better.

And the wood---that's a debate amongst barbecue lovers all over the world. Most swear by a bit of hickory, some by apple or mesquite---but always wood, for the best. We drove up to a much-touted barbecue place in Kentucky a couple of years ago, and got into a quite-considerable line a-waiting. I stepped around the corner toward the scent, and walked between four-foot walls made entirely of bags of Kingsford. Then I knew. It was OK---but it wasn't Barbecue.

With a REAL Pit-Man, the meat goes onto those pit-rungs with the care and placement of a ritual sacrifice, and I suppose it's as close as it comes in the modern scheme of things---meat sizzle and the perfume of good smoke rising to Heaven. The time, the covering and uncovering, the shovel-shuffling of the coals and the wood and the blaze into the proper proportions and temperature---all these go into making up a good batch of barbecue.You can be invited over to a neighbor's house for "a barbecue" and be served burgers straight off the charcoal, the unholy aura of starter-fluid tainting each mouthful---THAT'S not a Barbecue---that's a cookout, and a bad one, at that.

Real Barbecue comes from a real pit; night-long tending for a whole pig that will be served WAY up in the day to follow; conversation and sandwiches and beer and hoopcheese and crackers, beer and more beer, maybe some cans of Vy-eenies or sardines---those are proper sustenance for the pit-folk and their avid followers--age-old tastes for the REAL taste of home.

The meat is turned, turned again, moved to a better spot over the coals, with a sissssss of water through the rungs now and then when the coals rage too hot; a sussssshhh of the bellows to re-kindle the red when need be.

Ribs are either dry-rubbed to start, then sometimes rubbed again, the seasonings gilding onto the surfaces like brazen armor, or they are swabbed at the last, with the red sauce of choice, then left just long enough for the deep burgundy glaze to meld to the meat in a shiny shellac like the paint-job on a well-loved Camaro.

The butt-or-shoulder-meat comes from the pit naked as it went on, the only change the night-long tenderness and the perfection of that smoke-cloak all through. It can be shaken from the bone, which slips out like fingers from a glove. The great chunks of steaming fragrance are then pulled (my favorite---the long, tender strands separating with the grain, one of the few times true tenderness is achieved that way) or chopped, which means just what it says---sometimes two-handed cleaver-chopping worthy of a skilled Asian Master.

Meat is piled onto grilled or toasted buns, anointed with sauce, with a little haystack of good crisp, vinegary coleslaw shreds atop. Top on, little salute from greasy grill spatula, and a miracle is born.

Brunswick is Brunswick Stew---a conglomeration of lots of kinds of meat (originally mostly game, but could include terrapin, shrimp, beef, pork, or chicken), with too many finely-chopped vegetables to name. It's a hunting-camp dish, sometimes made over an open fire, the boiling mass in the big black pot stirred with a boat paddle. It was usually done well before the meat came off the grill, and bowls were passed around to the hungry bystanders to quell the uprising until the pork was done.

Slaw is just the Southern word for coleslaw, of which there are several camps, the main two being mayonnaise or vinegar. It's a shredded or chopped head of cabbage, with any additions customary to the locale---green onions or peppers or grated carrot; fancy-dancy folks have been known to add chopped apple or a little can of crushed pineapple or even sunflower seeds. I like both kinds of dressing, and I like my slaw "ON" which means a spoonful actually ON the sandwich, as well as some for fork-bites alongside.

Baked Beans are most usually started with a sizzle of onion and chopped bell pepper, then any amount of barbecue sauce and brown sugar that pleases the cook. Beans of choice where I'm from are cans of Showboat Pork 'n' Beans, drained of their extra liquid, and divested of that clammy little white waxy bit of "pork" which they sport in deference to their name. All this is stirred together in the skillet, then poured into a baking dish; top that with a nice lattice of bacon strips, stick it in a 350 oven for about 45 minutes, and you've got the perfect Southern Side for anything from burgers to barbecue to fried catfish. Nirvana is reached when some of the crispins and messy meat from the pulled or chopped pork are stirred in before baking.

Potato Salad---that's a hard subject to discuss, especially if there's more than one Southern cook in the conversation. Talk gets hot and heavy, always including, "Well, the way I make MYE Potato Salad. . ." and ranging on to pickles, dill or sweet; onion, yea or nay, and if Miracle Whip ever rears its ugly head, the WAR is on.

It's usually just nicely boiled small potatoes, skins on or off, cut up warm into a bowl, salted, and left to sit a few minutes while you chop a bit of sweet onion, some sweet pickles, a hard-boiled egg or two, and a bit of cold crisp bell pepper. A big clop of Duke's mayo, a squirt of French's mustard, a little handful of celery seeds, and serve when you want---right now, warm, or cover and chill.

And Sauce---I won't get into the sauce debate. Every section of the country has their own tradition, and I'm from the darrrrrrk-red, brown sugar section of the country, though I DID have some beef ribs in a place on the Riverwalk in San Antonio that still haunt---dry ribs though they were. They were at the perfect moment---rich, long-cooked meat which clung to the bone enough to rip apart, with small ragged ridges you could feel with your tongue before you greedily chewed that heavenly mouthful.

And I just now saw Bourdain watching a South Carolina pit-man take off the pork, break it apart with his hands, and pour on what looked like a pint of yellow mustard. My tongue is curling just thinking about it.

I was raised on Mississippi sauce, with delighted forays into the big-city refinements of Memphis pits like Leonard’s---remembered with an avaricious covetousness unknown since Midas' downfall. And Mississippi has been a RED state since LONG before CNN tacked up that map. We mostly like it deep burgundy/red, slightly sweet with the depth of brown sugar or molasses cooked thick as ready-to-set fudge.

And I have NO idea what "Lion Ribs" are---that was in Atlanta, two states removed from my raising, so I don't know what-all they do over there.

And I'd like to hear what sauce is the norm/favorite/old standby in other areas of the country. I've always been of the comforting thought that there's barbecue EVERYWHERE. There must be.


Anonymous said...

I dream one day of trying actual, real barbecue as you describe. The hours long, smoke drenched soul of meat so different from the quickly grilled slices over briquettes we have over here.


racheld said...

You've got it, my Antipodean Friend---Barbecue, of all preparations on Earth, has SOUL.

Not just Soul Food, but a persona, a SELF. It's a one-of-a-kind, and since Hunters seem to have beaten Gatherers to the actual COOKING of food, that first stick-and-a-fire Kitchen most probably sent up the soulful scents of roasting meat.

And even now, the three components---wood, fire, meat---with a judicious hand guiding all three---that's perfection.