My Rouses Everyday, March/April 2017
It’s late Friday morning — around 11am and what I’d usually consider the outer edges of the breakfast zone. But instead of considering a third cup of strong coffee, I’m staring at a mountain of smoked meat, formulating a plan of attack.
Should I start with a few bites of sliced brisket? The perfect pink smoke ring and thick, peppery bark look pretty seductive. Or maybe a forkful of pulled pork, still hot from the pit and rich with just the right amount of pig fat. Maybe a juicy rib? I haven’t tried the beefy “burnt ends” of the brisket, which always disappear before I can get an order in. Then there’s chicken, sausage and side dishes to contend with.
This, my friends, is what our ancestors called “a pretty high-class problem.”
To the uninitiated, the aluminum food service tray that’s weighing down the table at Central City Barbecue in New Orleans might look like a slow-smoked feast for a small, hungry army. But if you’re a dedicated barbecue fan, you’ll see a whole lot of America piled on top of brown butcher paper.
If you’re even slightly geeky about barbecue, the innocently named “BBQ Sampler” is a delicious, lip-licking geography lesson.
The ribs and pulled pork (usually shoulder) are near-universal slow-smoked crowd-pleasers, but the well-crusted brisket slices hail from Texas, the “burnt ends” a specialty of Kansas City. The remoulade potato salad adds a tangy hometown salute among the side dishes.
We live in a time when barbecue is having its long, slow moment in the national culinary spotlight. When high-quality barbecue options seem to be multiplying by the day, and the description of “good enough for here” seems to be a lot less common.
A moment when the state of smoked meat is strong — and a moment that’s been well worth the wait.
Tradition, Time & Place
Not so long ago — say 10 years or so — getting a plate of really good barbecue along the Gulf Coast was pretty rare. In South Louisiana, a few Acadian traditions paid homage to the sacred hog — the celebratory cochon du lait pig roasts and cold weather — but those were different enough to be their own proverbial Cajun-flavored animal.
The many-splendored styles of Southern barbecue have traditionally reflected a distinct sense of place in terms of cuts, woods and sauces. Different meats, different techniques, different flavors — but one word: “barbecue.”
Ask the simple question “What is barbecue?” and you get a range of different responses. In North Carolina, it’s always pork — topped with peppery vinegar near the coast and tomato-based sauce when you cross to the Appalachian foothills. In Memphis, it can be dry-rubbed pork ribs or pulled shoulder. Fans of the Texas style favor brisket and hot links (peppery smoked sausages). Kansas City folks love ribs and burnt ends.
Even devotees of a trademark method — whole hog barbecue — can fall out over stylistic differences. (North Carolinians chop meat and skin into a fine consistency, while West Tennessee folks prefer to choose their sandwich meats from specific parts of the smoked pig.)
Many of these locally legendary barbecue pits were in tiny towns — off the beaten path, true to their regional style, and often family-owned for generations. Dedicated meatheads would make savory pilgrimage to the Hallowed Pits of the Masters, where you could get mind-blowing sandwiches for just a few bucks. In its natural habitat, traditional barbecue is part of the landscape.
Better All the Time: A Modern Scene Develops
Slow-smoked, “real barbecue” is a food group that seems like it would travel pretty well. Its essential elements seem straightforward — everyday barnyard meats, woodsmoke and plenty of patience. All you need is an experienced pitmaster, a place to park your smoker, and the roadside experience should feel right at home just about anywhere — from Tacoma to Tallahassee, Venice Beach to the Virginia coast. Right?
Well, it turns out that, like so many things worth doing, the “simple food” is a lot more complicated than it seems from the outside. (Ask any pitmaster.) And running a barbecue restaurant beyond the culture’s natural habitat makes it that much more challenging.
First off, there’s the business end. Most classic joints (regardless of tradition) follow the “Till We Run Out” business model. They smoke all night, open the doors for lunch, and sell until they’re out. And because they’re local, pitmasters do their signature style.
Take a famous barbecue style outside its natural environs — say Memphis ribs to Metairie, for example — and you’ve got to adapt to local tastes and expectations. Any restaurant likely won’t be a no-frills smoking shack, but a thoroughly realized “restaurant concept” that needs to accommodate die-hard rib aficionados, folks who want “a lighter option,” picky toddlers and the occasional vegetarian.
A broader menu means customers expect more diverse condiment options, including a now common “six pack o’ sauces,” often presented in a cardboard beer carrier. A typical selection usually includes a tomato-based option (spicy, mild or sweet) and a nod to the pepper/vinegar Carolina tradition. One of the slots is increasingly filled by a squeeze bottle of North Alabama white sauce — a tangy mayo-based sauce frequently spiked with horseradish — popularized by Big Bob Gibson and a specialty of Tuscaloosa-based Moe’s Original Bar B Que. (Though originally associated with smoked chicken, Alabama white sauce is also making its way onto pork sandwiches, and if it’s on the table, just about anything you please.)
Some hardliners frown on the “all sauces” strategy, arguing that some sauces are meant for specific meats, and that the multi-style approach dilutes the importance of distinct barbecue cultures. Dubbed the “International House of Barbecue Syndrome,” the argument is that history and place become less important to the culture even as it spreads more widely.
The recent rise of barbecue competition culture also shines a modern spotlight on previously hidden regional styles and living legends of the slow-smoked craft. Stalwarts like Kansas City’s American Royal World Series of Barbecue and Memphis in May have carried the torch for years, while relative upstarts like the Big Apple BBQ Block Party stoke interests and appetites far from the pits of the rural Deep South. New Orleans’ own Hogs for the Cause brings together competition and charity as teams compete and raise funds for pediatric brain cancer.
The competition circuit also brings together a range of aspiring and experienced pitmasters who might not cook together otherwise. The FatBack Collective, an all-star team composed of a fascinating mix of white-linen chefs and whole-hog stalwarts, includes three New Orleans chefs from the Herbsaint/Cochon/Peche group (Donald Link, Stephen Stryjewski and Ryan Prewitt). And sometimes the competition circuit can help regional smoke folks build a national reputation for their brick-and-mortar businesses. The team behind The Shed Barbeque, a “barbecue and blues joint” in Ocean Springs, has been active on the competition circuit for at least a decade. In 2015, The Shed took home Memphis in May’s coveted Grand Champion trophy after multiple wins in whole hog, beef and poultry categories.
And of course, the wisdom of the oldest cooking techniques is spread through the most modern digital technology. Want to learn how the modern gods of smoked meat build a pit, trim a brisket or pick a pig? All you need is a phone, an internet connection and a browser pointed to YouTube.
But there’s still no substitute for experience — the long, slow hours spent making magic with meat and woodsmoke. For those of us who would rather eat than smoke, it’s heartening to have so many options on the scene.
Outside Central City BBQ, I shuffle past the waiting line of diners (“We’re out of burnt ends, sorry y’all,” says the waitress) and see a pickup pulling a trailer load of split hickory wood back to the pits. It’s a welcome sign that barbecue’s long moment may just be starting.
“The word ‘barbecue’ belongs to several different parts of speech. It is a noun meaning a social gathering, as in ‘We’re having a barbecue.’ It is a noun meaning a food that has been cooked by the barbecue method, as in ‘Let’s eat some barbecue.’ It is a verb meaning to cook in the barbecue method, as in ‘Let’s barbecue it.’ It is an adjective, as in ‘That’s barbecued pork shoulder.’ All of these usages point to the same thing. Meat, cooked slowly with the smoke of wood or charcoal.”
—Lolis Eric Elie, QUE&A: Barbecue, My Rouses Everyday, September|October 2013