Life is changing too fast and too much these days. My blog has recently turned into a bit of a downer. This was not my intention at all. Maybe it is my mother's cancer that has made me reconsider things, but it is time to take a pause and reassess what, and who, matters in life.
Here's an article from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin that gives a good introduction to 'southern' barbecue.
Decoding Southern Barbecue
By: James G. Wiles , For The Bulletin
Myrtle Beach, S.C. - You can tell where a Southern boy's from by the kind of barbecue he likes. There are two things to pay attention to, the meat and the sauce. We'll talk about the cooking process later.
In Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia, barbecue is pork, usually - but not always - pulled pork shoulder. In Kentucky, it might be lamb (mutton). In Texas and Kansas City, it's beef. But that's only the start of the variations. In Virginia and North Carolina, the sauce is mostly vinegar and red pepper flakes. South Carolina prefers a mustard-based sauce. In Texas and Kansas City, the sauce is tomato-based. And in Memphis, they don't use sauce. They have "dry barbecue." Which means a rub.That makes us the United States of Barbecue. All different, all good. So says Fred Thompson (no, not that Fred Thompson) in his new book, Barbecue Nation (Taunton Press 2007). All 'cue-heads should go out and buy it.
How to make sense of all this? My personal approach is the same as you take to marrying the right wine to the right meat.Tomato-based sauces go naturally with beef. Astringent sauces - including the wonderful, bitter-orange barbecue sauce which Cubans use for their traditional, open-air Christmas Eve roast half-pig (lechon asado) - go best with pork. Ribs, whether beef or pork, again, seem to go best with a tomato base, although making the mighty fine Chinese barbecued spareribs requires honey, soy sauce, ketchup and garlic.
Having lived for two years in North Carolina, I swear by the North Carolina style of barbecue. A pig in a pit and a sauce of vinegar and red pepper. If you're driving down I-95, once you cross the North Carolina line, you'll begin seeing billboards for the local barbecue.
There are actually East Carolina- and Lexington-style barbecue, which are different. But you'll have to go to Carolina in the morning to find out which is which.
So, with pork shoulder, I don't think anything but vinegar and red pepper flakes work. As the late Bill Neal (Southern Cooking, University of North Carolina Press 1985) says, "To my taste, it is a classic, hardly interfering with the smoky roast ... and that's just setting it up."
Neal's point, I think, gets to the real distinction: What's the meat? The next is: How do you cook the meat? The last is: When do you apply the sauce?
The Western (tomato-based) sauce is best applied on the grill while the meat, usually beef, is cooking. In Texas, they call that the "moppin' sauce." Same with the South Carolina (mustard-based) sauce. The North Carolina style is applied after the meat (pork, in this case) comes off the grill.
Which gets into how to cook the meat. In Memphis, they apply the rub and then grill it. In Texas and Kansas City, they sometimes also use a rub, although to most this is heresy.
In North and South Carolina, they use a pit, usually cooking a shoulder or half a pig at a time. Around there, the rule-of-thumb is, if you can't smell the 'cue when you pull up in your car, keep going. They don't have a pit.
I agree with that. Although barbecue roasted and smoked in an oil can can be mighty good. Just drive up Ridge Avenue some warm Saturday night in July and smell.
The other argument is over what type of wood to use for the fire. I leave that to the experts. Some of the variations are pine, applewood, hickory and mesquite. Or plain charcoal.
A little bit on the history of barbecue. Og the Caveman would rightly say that the idea of cooking meat over an open fire originated with him. The word "barbecue" derives from the Spanish "barbacoa," which, in turn, has a Native American root. The Indians did barbecue. And they had peppers and tomatoes. But they didn't have vinegar, which comes from wine. They also didn't have pork, beef, chicken and sheep, all of which came from Europe.
That's why barbecue may be the most American of dishes
You can apply rub before grilling. You can apply rub, as they do at the numerous Stubb's restaurants in Central Texas, and then apply a mopping sauce (baste) while the meat cooks and then offer more sauce at the table.
One other approach, from the wonderful Knotty Pine restaurant in Tulsa, Okla. (3301 W. 5th St., 918 588-0191), is simply to cook any kind of meat - sausage, turkey, chicken, beef, pork, etc., in a pit over hickory wood and then offer a selection of sauces at the table.
Finally, what do you eat with it? 'Round here, it's 'slaw or french fries. In Texas, it's buttered garlic toast. Or baked beans.
Printed nearby are some classic barbecue sauces for your consideration. I hope your family starts your own, distinctive barbecue tradition.
Have a great summer.
Bill Neal's North Carolina-Style Barbecue Sauce
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 to 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
½ to ¾ cup water
1 teaspoon sugar
2/3 cup minced onion
1 bay leaf
1 garlic clove, crushed
2/3 teaspoon thyme
½ teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons peanut oil
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 to 3 teaspoons dry mustard
4 to 6 teaspoons cold water
Combine all the ingredients except the last two in a small saucepan. Bring to a rapid boil, then simmer five minutes. Remove from heat. Dissolve the mustard in the cold water; then thin it out with some of the hot vinegar sauce. Stir the mustard into the sauce. Let cool, bottle, and store in the refrigerator.
Fred Thompson's South Carolina-Style Barbecue Sauce
1 ½ cups yellow mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce like French's
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ cup light brown sugar
½ teaspoon crushed garlic
½ cup tomato paste
½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
5 tablespoons cider vinegar
Simmer over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Bottle.
Fred Thompson's Kansas City-Style Sweet and Hot Barbecue Sauce
2 cups ketchup
½ cup cider vinegar
½ cup dark brown sugar
1 clove garlic, mashed
1 teaspoon paprika
½ cup chili sauce
2 to 3 teaspoons hot sauce
kosher salt to taste
1 stick unsalted butter
Simmer over medium heat until butter and sugar dissolve. Bottle.
James G. Wiles is a Philadelphia lawyer.