Barbecue: the latest in food fashion
Barbecue: the latest in food fashion
Barbecue, the oldest cooking method known to man, is the object of a new surge of interest across America.
“Barbacoa,” Spanish for barbecue, dates back to the 17 century. It was a method of cooking or smoking that the West Indians used to preserve their meats and fish from the warm temperature of their native climate.
Though rarely used today to preserve foods, the device has become one of our nation’s favorite food specialties. Whether the pit is closed or open, whether the sauce is spicy and vinegary or mild and tomatoey, barbecue’s popularity in both restaurants and on the patio is spreading from shore to shore. Once the food of the poor and unemployed, barbecue has risen to new heights; it has even become fashionable and has been a key part of what is now being touted as the “New American Cuisine.”
They say good barbecue is all a matter of personal taste. Some of the best barbecued beef brisket comes out of Texas, and outstanding pork can be found in the Carolinas. Kansas City, Mo., has become a barbecue haven because of its diversity in barbecue.
In conducting research for my new book, “The Great American Barbecue Book,” my wife and I took a seven-week tour across the Southern barbecue belt and learned firsthand that barbecue varies immensely by region, whether in the way in which it’s prepared or the many types of sauces used during and after preparation.
Along the Southeastern coast of the United States in North and South Carolina, the old traditional method of barbecuing is to prepare a whole hog over an open pit. The pork roast is then either chopped or pulled in strips, which are laid on a slab of white bread and topped with a hot peppery vinegar, coleslaw, and another slice of white bread. That type of sandwich is extremely popular in this region.
In the Southeast the words “pork” and “barbecue” are synonymous. You don’t barbecue pork; pork is barbecue.
In the Carolinas and Virginia, some variation of potatoes or potato salad, coleslaw, hush puppies, or sweet potatoes is served with barbecue. In some areas Brunswick Stew, a tomato-based soup of meat and vegetables, is served with barbecue. In South Carolina a hot pork or liver hash is sometimes served over rice. You don’t find the Texas and Kansas City favorite, barbecued baked beans, as often, but corn bread is as common in the Carolinas as it is in the Deep South.
In Kansas City or Texas and Oklahoma, the most common cooking method is the hickory closed-pit method, which uses beef brisket and pork and beef ribs. Kansas City is the most eclectic city in the United States when it comes to barbecue. As those of you who come from there know, you can regularly get beef and pork ribs, ham, sausage, brisket, mutton, and other special treats, such as shrimp, chicken, wild game, and fresh fish.
The availability of hardwoods, such as hickory and oak, in the Kansas City region accounts for the distinctive taste of its barbecue. Missouri hardwood, hickory in particular, is essential to Kansas City’s barbecue success. The state is one of the nation’s largest producers of hardwood charcoal and charcoal briquettes.
The range of Kansas City’s spicy barbecue sauces is virtually unending. A sampling of sauces available in supermarkets and restaurants around the city reads like a local and national Who’s Who of the barbecue business. Kansas City probably has more varieties of barbecue sauce than does any other city in the United States.
Indeed, one local supermarket carries more than 60 varieties of sauce.
In addition, numerous local barbecue restaurants sell their sauces. Most Midwestern sauces are red sauces, variations on the theme of a tomato base in the form of ketchup or tomato concentrate plus vinegar, sweeteners, hot spices, and, occasionally, natural liquid smoke. Very few Midwesterners use the pure Eastern Carolina-type sauce, consisting primarily of hot peppers bottled in vinegar.
In Memphis, Tenn., a city which boasts more barbecue restaurants than does any other city of its size, one will find crisply braised pork shoulder and crusty but tender ribs. The meat is usually cooked over a direct fire, and the outside gets dark and crusty, which locals call the “brown meat,” and the inside, which stays tender and light, is known as the “white meat.”
Side dishes, which are typical fare in the Memphis area, include barbecued baked beans laced with molasses and chunks of pork; coleslaw in a mustard-based dressing flavored with vinegar, sugar, pickles, and pickle juice; onion rings; french fries; and vermicelli pasta in a meatless tomato sauce.
The Memphis area uses the same closed-pit cooking method as in Kansas City but with different flavored sauces, generally thinner than the Kansas City sauces and containing less cumin and chili powder than do the Texas sauces. Nearly all of the barbecue sauces in Kansas City, Texas, and Memphis have a tomato base with varying degrees of sweetness and tartness.
Barbecue to Texans is “soul food.” You can find barbecued brisket, beef clod (the upper shoulder), sausage, chicken, wild game, and even goat, but pork ribs assume a secondary role. For the most part beef is to Texas barbecue as pork is to the Carolinas.
The red Texan sauces are different from the thick, richer Midwestern variety. They are usually a dark, soupy concoction consisting of a tomato base plus Worcestershire sauce and are strongly influenced by the native wild chilies, onion, cumin, garlic, pepper, and paprika, seasonings used by the Indians and Mexicans.
One basic misconception about Texas barbecue is that mesquite, rather than hickory or oak, is used to smoke the meat. Texas has plenty of mesquite barbecuers, but most often the professionals use hickory and oak hardwood.
As in Kansas City, barbecued baked beans along with a creamy coleslaw are served as side dishes. From there, one goes to corn bread, cobblers, and biscuits. For dessert you’re served fried fruit pie or the standard fruit and cream pies.
The most common beverages served with barbecue from coast to coast are beer, colas, other soda drinks, and iced tea. In many parts of the Deep South and Southwest, the iced tea is served already sweetened and in some areas is heavily sweetened. The safest, all-around drink is water; the most unsavory is milk.
Barbecue is usually spicy and occasionally salty. Therefore, one usually consumes more liquid with barbecue than with other foods. That’s at least one reason for light-on-the-alcohol intake with this type of cooking.
Professional barbecuers find and make time to demonstrate their abilities and show off their wares in contests held across the United States. Probably the most famous barbecue contest is the one held in Memphis, in May. It attracts cooking teams from across the United States and also internationally from Ireland, England, Germany, and France. Several other outstanding barbecue contests are Kansas City’s own American Royal Barbecue Contest, the Kansas State Barbecue Contest held in Lenexa, and the Houston Barbecue Contest held in conjunction with the Horse and Cattle Show.
If you want to taste some of the greatest regional barbecue in the country and learn how to prepare it, visit one of those contests.
Eating barbecue is a wonderful and extremely enjoyable experience, Whether it takes place in Virginia or Oklahoma, in Missouri or Louisiana, in the Carolinas or Texas. As you travel, give it a try.
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