This is a special two-part blog about the barbecue season, including its history, regional differences, international differences, and, of course, the requisite recipes, tips, tricks, and advice on how to prepare the food and put out a gorgeous outdoor spread.
All credit for research and visual aids go to about.com, Wikipedia, Pinterest, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary/Thesaurus, and all the Job Corps instructors I worked with about the art and subject of grilling and barbecue.
Ah, the first week of July. It’s the height of barbecue/grilling season (which started on Memorial Day Weekend back in May and won’t end until Labor Day in early September). While it would be easy for me to list recipes of barbecue season favorites right away, I’m not going to do that — at least not until tomorrow. So, today, in the words of every teacher ever, take out your notebooks (both paper and electronic) and make sure you take extensive notes in case I feel like giving a quiz later.
Now, let’s start with the word “barbecue.” Where does it come from? Well, the concept of a barbecue (roasting the carcass of a dead animal over a pit of fire) has been around since the Stone Age (maybe earlier than that, but let’s assume it was from the time of early man). Back then, roasting the meat was more than just a way to eat it; it was also a means to perserve it, since refrigeration and proper perserving techniques wouldn’t come until much later.
However, if you want to get technical about the etymology (word origin) of “barbecue” (even though, in the words of Nelson Muntz, “…records from that era are spotty, at best “), the Taíno people of the Caribbean and northeast South America are said to be the ones who came up with the name “barbacoa,” which means, “sacred fire pit.” Their idea of a barbecue back then was to dig a hole in the ground, burn some kindling, and roast a whole goat over a pot. Between the pot and the goat was a criss-crossed wooden platform (the “grill”) that acted as a net in case the goat meat fell off the bone, which it usually did (I never had goat meat, so I can’t really tell you what it tastes like or what to expect. I have, however, had goat cheese, and, by extension, goat milk. Both have a sharper, more pleasing taste than anything you get from a cow. In terms of price, however, it does cost a bit more — especially at the farmer’s market I frequented in San Francisco on most Saturday afternoons).
From there, “barbecoa” and its cooking methodology found its way from the Caribbean to other countries, mostly ones in Europe, since European explorers always found their way to the Caribbean (hey, it happened to Christopher Columbus) and brought back what the natives had (cooking techniques, treasures fit for royalty, a new disease [sexually transmitted or otherwise], maybe a few slaves). The word “barbecoa” found its way to the Portuguese, French, Spanish, and English languages.
The process began to evolve with the migration of Europeans and their African slaves in the Southern United States. Barbecue traditions on the East Coast are believed to have originated when Caribbean slaves (some of which may or may not have been my ancestors) were brought to the Carolinas in the 17th century. This Caribbean style of slow cooking meat formed the basis of the Southern barbecue tradition that influenced Texas when some of its first American settlers arrived. European pigs and cattle were transplanted to the New World (America) and became the primary meat source for the colonies. Pork was the meat of choice in the South due to the ability of pigs to thrive with little care, which is why pork is popular in Carolina and Memphis barbecue (not so much Texas and Kansas City, as I will discuss in this next paragraph).
Moving forward from the brief history of where barbecue came from, let’s look at the regional and international variations. America has eight regional differences of what barbecue is, but four of them are said to be the most important:
North and South Carolina: As mentioned before, pork is the meat of choice in a lot of Southern barbecue, and the Carolina twins are one of the states where pig meat reigns supreme on the grill (unless you’re vegetarian, vegan, Jewish, or Muslim). It’s served pulled, shredded, or chopped, but sometimes sliced, rubbed with a spice mixture before smoking, and mopped with a spice and vinegar liquid while it’s being smoked.
If you’re from Eastern North Carolina, then you get to use everything but the squeal as you’re barbecuing Mr. Porky. While that seems like Homer Simpson’s wet dream to eat an entire barbecued pig, I personally can’t warm up to the idea of eating charcoal-roasted chitlins (or chitterlings. In all my years on Earth, I have never pronounced “chitterlings” as “chit-ter-lings.” It’s “chitlins” and no amount of My Fair Lady-style elocution lessons is going to change me otherwise). It was bad enough I had to put up with the smell when I lived with my grandmother. Then again, I don’t mind pig intestines when the linings are being used for sausages. That’s pretty much the only way I can eat it, but I digress. Eastern North Carolina also uses a thin, vinegar-and-cayenne pepper-based barbecue sauce that’s more hot sauce than barbecue sauce (at least for those who associate barbecue sauce with the spicy, yet sweet, tomato-based sauce from Kansas City, Missouri). In Eastern North Carolina barbecue, the philosophy is to let the smoke give the meat flavor rather than rely on sauce or too much spice. It’s a very open, honest approach to barbecue.
Western North Carolina only uses pork shoulder (better known as a Boston butt), as shown on the barbecue grill in this picture:
I could live until I’m 100, and I still wouldn’t know why a “pork shoulder” is called a “Boston butt.” A pig’s butt is fleshier than that, and it doesn’t have that curly tail at the end of it. Here’s what Mr. Porky looks like before he goes to market to get slaughtered by Jocko the Butcher:
The actual butt of a pig is what we call the “ham” (which you can have at a barbecue, but only if it’s one of those Hawaiian ones). Maybe it’s called a Boston butt is because some leering butcher made a rude comparison between that cut of meat and his female customer’s posterior. Who knows?* All I know is that pork shoulder is the cut of meat that is used if you want to make pulled pork (whether it’s on the grill or with a slow cooker). Pork shoulder lends itself to barbecue and braising.
Anyway, N.C. barbecue on the west side also uses a vinegar-based barbecue sauce, but it balances its spiciness with some tomato (not as much as K.C. barbecue, but pretty close). Western N.C. barbecue is also known as Lexington Barbecue, as Lexington, North Carolina is the epicenter of this cooking technique, as evidenced by its many barbecue restaurant and a one-day festival in October called (creatively enough), “The Lexington Barbecue Festival.” Their philosophy is similar to the east side, but also adds, “A little sweetness never hurt anybody,” which I think everyone but diabetics and those who can’t taste sugar can agree with.
Memphis, Tennessee: Memphis barbecue is a hard subject to nail down, but I’ll do my best. Memphis-style barbecue is pork-based like the Carolinas, but their meat of choice is (my personal favorite) ribs in a paprika-hinted dry rub and slow-smoked over a low hickory fire before finishing on the grill. It’s preferred “dry,” meaning without sauce (becasue the rub adds all the flavor you could ever want on the ribs, so a sauce would be redundant), but if you want it “wet” (with sauce), you won’t get beaten up or chased out of town because of it. Memphis’ barbecue sauce takes the vinegar-and-tomato based flavor of the West side N.C. barbecue sauce and adds a hint of mustard to it. Because the dry rub and smoking provides all of the flavor, a Memphis-style barbecue sauce has to straddle the line between sweet and spicy. It can’t be one or the other. My first cooking assignment at Job Corps in Kentucky was to make barbecue sauce that started out as Memphis-style, but I added some extra ingredients to make it more the way I like it. Here’s the recipe to cut, copy, paste, edit, write down, and pass down to your next of kin:
Ingredients:1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons prepared mustard
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon mild chili powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne (optional)Preparation:
Melt butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until lightly browned. Add remaining ingredients (vinegar last), reduce heat and simmer over low for 20 minutes. Allow to cool. Optionally you can puree this sauce to make a smoother barbecue sauce.
I omitted the butter, didn’t add any oregano or thyme, used cayenne pepper (but sometimes, I’ll go for hot sauce), and added hickory-flavored liquid smoke. I’m also thinking of substituting ketchup for tomato paste or just making ketchup by hand and using that. I also add honey if I want it sweet and use both cayenne and hot sauce if I’m feeling particularly masochistic and want my digestive tract to burn. If you want the barbecue sauce to taste like something you’d get in a Memphis BBQ shack, then prepare it as is. If you want to change it to your taste, then do that too. One thing I learned in life is that recipes don’t have to be followed to the letter (unless you’re baking, then you have to follow recipes [called “formulas” in the bakeshop] to the letter).
Much like Lexington, North Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee prides itself in being Barbecue Central, moreso than Lexington (but don’t tell them that). Memphis is home to one of the largest concentrations of barbecue restaurants in the world and also has a city-wide event celebrating it: The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Competition
Now, we’re out of pork territory and into what a lot of people associate with barbecue: beef, and lots of it. Texas is so synonymous with barbecue that even Pennsylvania (a state that’s more based on griddle and oven cooking more than grilling, as seen with our Philly cheesesteaks, our Italian and Greek cuisine, or our pretzels from Amish country) has Texas-style BBQ restaurants (Bubba’s Texas BBQ, on West Girard Avenue
). Texas barbecue is all about beef — at least in Central Texas, where cattle is plentiful and people take beef seriously. East Texas’s barbecue is more like Carolina barbecue: more pork-based (pork shoulder and pork ribs slow-smoked over hickory wood are common dishes) and heavily influenced from the days of black slavery, West Texas barbecue uses a more direct heat method (as in “roasting over a spit”-style), is influenced from the Wild West and cowboys, uses mesquite wood as kindling, and also barbecues goat and mutton (sheep meat) as well as beef, and Southern Texas barbecue is more influenced by Mexican tastes.
Brisket is the meat cut of choice in Central Texas:
Central Texas barbecue became established in the 19th century in central Texas towns such as Lockhart, Luling, and Taylor, which were home to European immigrants (mostly from Germany and Czechoslovakia [now The Czech Republic]) who worked as butchers. From those butcher shops came restaurants, as the butchers often preserved their meat by smoking it over wood chips from oak and pecan trees. The European settlers did not think of this meat as “barbecue,” but the farm workers who bought it started calling it such, and the name stuck. When Texas-style barbecue first started, it catered to the upper class, who could choose among the highest quality cuts of meat. Because of this, they did not have an interest in the sauces. To this day, Eastern, Western, and Central Texas doesn’t emphasize sauces (Southern Texas, however, is the odd man out).
Kansas City, Missouri: K.C. Mo’s barbecue, out of all the barbecue styles discussed, has the widest variety of meats on the grill and is about as close to traditional barbecue (the “low-slow smoking” style. Grilling, in contrast to barbecue, is like sautéing and frying — high heat and quick cooking) as you can get. Besides the usual pork and beef seen in the Carolinas, Memphis, and Texas, chicken, mutton, turkey, and fish are also on the menu. Dishes cooked by other methods, such as grilled chicken, also can be found on the menus of local barbecue restaurants in Kansas City (and St Louis). Just about every type of barbecued meat served in America’s other barbecue capitals, from North and South Carolina’s pulled pork to Texas’s brisket, is served here, though the burnt ends of a brisket of beef or pork are distinctive to the city. Like Texas, Kansas City barbecue also has plenty of side dishes, most of which are common in “soul food” (macaroni and cheese, collard greens, coleslaw, baked beans, and French fries), as seen here:
However, unlike Carolina, Memphis, and most of Texas barbecue, Kansas City barbecue is renowned for its barbecue sauce: tomato-based, with sweet, spicy and tangy flavor profiles. It’s a lot like what you would find in South Carolina or Memphis, but
the tomato taste is more pronounced and more emphasis is put on how sweet it is rather than how spicy it is. Ever hear of K.C. Masterpiece barbecue sauce
at your local grocery store? Well, that’s where it’s from:
Well, it’s past 3:30 pm. We did a good job today, class.
*Pork shoulder actually called a Boston butt because, in pre-revolutionary New England and into the American Revolutionary War, some pork cuts that weren’t considered “high on the hog,” like loin and ham were packed into casks or barrels, known as “butts,” for storage and shipment, but my explanation is funnier.