The United States of 'Cue
Of all the weekends to celebrate being a 'Murrican, this is the one. If you want to celebrate this country's 230 years of independence by waving a flag, go right ahead. But all you really need to do to pledge your allegiance is to fire up the grill.
As I confessed earlier this week, I'm from up North, which means our Fourth of July "cookouts" were a hamburger-and-hot dog affair cooked on the "barbecue." Thirty-five years later, I've learned that we Yanks have been terribly confused.
What we had been doing all this time is grilling - cooking over direct heat for a relatively short period of time - NOT barbecue-ing. This clarification is old hat to southern folks, who grew up understanding that "barbecue" is a noun and nothing else.
So, if "barbecue" is a noun, then what is it, exactly? In contrast to the high, direct heat used for grilling, traditional barbecue requires low, indirect heat in a pit or a smoker. Cooking time is long, often several days.
In summary, barbecue requires a rig, a lot of time and a bit of braun (sweat too). It's not easy hauling stacks of wood and half a pig onto a grate. Backyard babies, step aside.
Food writer David Leite was as confused and in awe as I continue to be, so he set off on the road to get schooled, spending a week with a pit master in rural Tennessee (where, by the way, he was hilariously mistaken for a Washington Post reporter).
What he discovered, as a Northerner, is a culture deeply embedded in the hearts and souls of his southern siblings but one that remains a mystery to those who live outside those state lines.
Being in barbecue country, however, didn't mean that Leite had all the answers. It turns out that barbecue in Tennessee is different from that in Georgia, Kentucky, Kansas and every state in between.
In his introduction to "Cornbread Nation 2: The United States of Barbecue," a barbecue anthology, editor Lolis Eric Elie writes:
"...barbecue is a food that unifies the vast expanse of the American South, an ever larger portion of the American mainstream. Though the various versions of barbecue differ from each other as much as cows differ from sheep, or as much as tomatoes differ from mustard seeds, the common themes of wood and smoke, meat and sauce, family and fellowship, transcend regional rivalries and recipe differences."
Southern Foodways, an Oxford, Miss.-based organization dedicated to preserving the culinary traditions of the South (disclosure: I am a member) has documented those commonalities and differences in a BBQ Oral History Project, a collection of interviews with pitmasters in Memphis and throughout rural Tennessee.
So, given all the regionalities and deeply-steeped tradtions, can barbecue come to us or do we go to the barbecue?
As you can imagine, there are a few schools of thought.
1) Get in the car and see the country, like Jane and Michael Stern continue to do. Having penned several books, including "Road Food," the Sterns are on the constant prowl for local, homegrown eateries and have compiled a comprehensive list of barbecue joints/shacks/you-name-it that could keep you on the road for weeks.
For a more focused barbecue road trip, consider a trip to North Carolina, east to west, where the rivalries are huge. Here's how one writer from the Post's Travel section ate his way through the state.
2) Learn how to barbecue without going down south. Steven Raichlen author of several books, including "The Barbecue Bible," also conducts intensive barbecue workshops called "Barbecue University," a three-day extravaganza held several times a year at the tony Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Turns out that the pricetag is tony as well: $3,200 (double occupancy)! According to Raichlen's Web site, which offers lots of basic info for barbecue beginners (including a very useful "10 Commandments"), the "University" is a hands-on experience, covering the small (ribs) and the large (whole hog).
3) Keep reading.
Here's what's on my to-do list by the bed:
Titles by Lolis Eric Ellie (also author of "Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, a columnist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans
Titles by Cheryl and Bill Jamison
And, finally a real kick in the pants, "Peace, Love and Barbecue" by champion pitmaster Mike Mills and his daughter, Amy Mills Tunnicliffe.
I'm also keen to check out the message boards on Road Food, which cover topics such as "What's the best BBQ you've ever had?" or "Who fixes good BBQ baloney?"
Have a delicious weekend! I'll post a Fourth of July to-do list on Monday.
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