The term “barbecue” may have a number of meanings in the United States. Barbecue buffs usually assert that true barbecue involves slow cooking, primarily of meats, using relatively low levels of indirect heat or moderately hot smoke.
Confusion arises because of the use of the term “barbecue” to refer to what is better called “grilling:” direct and relatively quick cooking over high heat.
A key difference between these two important cooking methods involves the types of meats used. Taking beef as an example, a good quality steak may be grilled to perfection in a matter of minutes; the better quality the meat, the better the result; the key danger is overcooking.
Contrast the indirect slow cooking barbecue process: an inexpensive cut of beef, a brisket being typical, will be slow cooked for many hours, tenderizing the meat by breaking down the collagen. To the barbecue purist, the best barbecue should be so tender that it “falls off the bone.”
Though restaurants certainly have grills, the grilling phenomenon generally calls up the image of a home griller, usually the man of the house, tending anything from a simple kettle grill using charcoal briquettes to an elaborate, gas-fired grilling machine costing as much as a small automobile.
Though home smokers exist, and though home grills may have cool areas to allow indirect cooking, the barbecue phenomenon generally calls up the image of a dedicated professional “pit master” who spends hours tending large quantities of meats using substantial wood-fired ovens in a true barbecue restaurant.
Two final issues add to the semantic confusion between barbecuing and grilling. One is the fact that the noun “a barbecue” may refer to nearly any kind of outdoor eating event, from a picnic to a cookout. The other is the fact that in grilling, meats are often prepared with what is called “barbecue sauce,” of which there are many varieties.
Once you draw these semantic lines for true barbecue devotees, they will agree on nearly nothing else. Among the many major points of disagreement, three stand out as fighting issues:
The cooking configuration: type of fuel (hardwood, charcoal), proportion of smoke, degree of heat, length of cooking.
- Type of meat; through much of the southeastern United States, pork is king. In Texas and much of the western United States, beef brisket rules. In the American Midwest, both meats form an uneasy alliance.
- Type of flavorings during cooking: spice rubs (hot or mild, sweet or peppery), sauces (vinegar or tomato based, sweet or savory). A sauce may be mopped on during preparation, added by the ultimate diner, or not used at all.
- Once these arguments are begun, fans can discuss the merits of a number of distinct American barbecue regions (although rival restaurants on the same street can easily show major differences themselves).
Eastern and western North Carolina agree on the meat: pork “butt” which is actually the shoulder of the animal. The meat is carefully rubbed with a spice and sugar mixture, then “mopped” with a sauce all during the slow cooking process. The result is so tender it can be shredded with a fork or by hand, yielding “pulled pork.” In eastern North Carolina, a plain sauce of vinegar with some pepper and spices (and possibly a dash of sugar to lighten) is preferred, while in western North Carolina the sauce will be sweeter, frequently through the addition of ketchup.
In northern South Carolina, chefs often prefer to use a sweet mustard-based sauce, while in southern South Carolina and northern Georgia, a vinegar based sauce is popular, sweeter than the North Carolina variety.
In Memphis, Tennessee, baby-back ribs are a specialty. They are smoked dry, meaning they are rubbed with spices but not mopped repeatedly with a sauce during the smoking process. The diner has the option of adding a sauce that is not too vinegary, not too sweet. The pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw on a soft hamburger bun is also a Memphis tradition.
Kansas City, Missouri claims to have more barbecue restaurants per capita than any city in the country. No one meat predominates; the style is typified by a rather sweet sauce, but even here differences prevail from neighborhood to neighborhood and restaurant to restaurant.
St. Louis, Missouri prides itself on its pork spare ribs. Typical St. Louis sauce is sweet and thick, made with both brown sugar and ketchup, with possible addition of mustard and cider vinegar.
Texas style barbecue reflects a distinct German influence: smoked sausages share the menu with beef brisket and pork ribs. The sauce is spicy, tangy, and tomato based, with a moderate level of sweetness. More than any other region, central Texas proudly boasts of its “no-frill” barbecue service as exemplified by Kreuz Market in Lockhart, where the true fan will eat the meat off butcher paper, using hands only, with plain white bread. Kreuz still offers the traditional beef “clod,” or barbecued beef shoulder.
While Americans do eat lamb (legs and chops), they have never developed a taste for mutton, the meat from sheep aged more than a year. Like many inexpensive and tough cuts of meat, however, mutton lends itself well to slow-cooked barbecue. The area around Owensboro in western Kentucky specializes in this meat, using a distinctive sauce called “black dip,” typically made with Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, spices, and a dash of Kentucky bourbon.
The southern state of Alabama is known for its unusual unsweetened (and tomato-free) white barbecue sauce, based on equal parts of mayonnaise and cider vinegar. The sauce is brushed on barbecued and grilled foods during the last few minutes of preparation, and also used for dipping.
The state of Arkansas favors barbecued chicken, marinated with a dry rub, cooked whole, then split and covered with barbecue sauce only when served. In Arkansas, barbecued beef or pork sandwiches are invariably served with coleslaw.
The American Pacific Ocean state of Hawaii has its own barbecue tradition. Kalua pig is the signature dish. To make this delicacy, either for local consumption or tourist entertainment at a Hawaiian luau, the cooks dig a pit into the sand, line it with banana leaves, line it again with heated stones, add a salted whole pig (sometimes with an apple in its mouth), cover it with more leaves, then bury it all for a long slow cook.
The diner can find barbecued chicken, turkey, or even vegetables in nearly any community in the United States. Ethnic communities all over the United States have their own barbecuing traditions, from Chinese Mongolian barbecue to Cuban lechon asado, a spicy slow roasted whole pig. In the festive churrascaria rotisserie restaurants of Brazilian origin, grilled and slow-cooked meats of all types are served off spits by roving waiters; a number of national and regional chains have sprung up to serve this kind of food. Many chain and informal restaurants specialize in “barbecued” ribs of some type. The food buff is advised, however, that nearly any item slathered in commercial barbecue sauce may be described as “barbecue” in the United States. It may be good, but whether it is really barbecue is often a matter of debate.
A Short History of Barbecue
Theories abound as to the origin of the word “barbecue,” but the most likely idea is that the word is derived from the term barbacoa, a West Indian descriptor of a process of slow cooking meat over hot coals. The word barbacoa may in turn be either of Spanish origin or stem from one of the indigenous languages of the Caribbean.
The origins of the barbecue process in the southwestern United States are well documented. In the pre Civil-War south, wild pigs were abundant. The pigs took no maintenance; all you had to do was catch one. Whole neighborhoods would enjoy getting together for pig roasts. The meat of these semi-wild pigs was tougher than the meat of farm-raised hogs, hence, slow cooking techniques like barbecue got the most out of them.
Later, when hog production became more of an organized business in the south, the taste for barbecue remained, and became the staple menu of the church or political picnic. Eventually, the barbecue “joint” appeared everywhere: a simple restaurant, usually specializing in takeout, and frequently featuring pig images on its signs.
Because true barbecue takes so much time, attention and effort, it has never fallen prey to the fast-food chain restaurant phenomenon so common in America.
Barbecue in the south has its own complex racial elements. Since blacks often got the least desirable meats, they often created the most desirable cooking techniques to get the most out of the meats. Black pit masters became legends, often attracting white clientele (at least for take out) in a south that was supposed to be strictly segregated. During the civil rights strife of the 1950s and 60s, barbecue tended to divide between black and white; now that times are calmer, it is once again a unifying force in southern culture.