Barbecue: The (Unwritten) Lore of the Land, by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, May 18, 1994

“Spring is cherished by many food lovers for the first tiny asparagus, tender greens or delicate fiddlehead ferns. To some, however, the arrival of the season means just one thing: it’s finally warm enough to stay up all night cooking pork over smoldering logs in a dirt pit.

That is the essence of making barbecue. Defining the process any further is a tricky business. Unlike cooking techniques like roasting or grilling, which have been carefully codified by writers like the great French chef Auguste Escoffier, barbecuing is folk cooking. Developed by home cooks far outside the culinary mainstream of haute cuisine, it has no written rules. Instead, it lends itself to constant bastardization, becoming unwritten but strictly observed local gastrononomic law.

It is essential to understand that the verb “to barbecue” does not refer to what one does over a backyard fire to steaks and burgers. That is grilling, which is on the opposite end of the live-fire cooking spectrum.

Barbecuing consists of placing a large, tough cut of meat like beef brisket or pork shoulder in an enclosed space and allowing it to cook indirectly by the smoke from a hardwood fire. The temperature is kept below the boiling point (212 degrees), and the very slow cooking process causes the meat’s stringy connective tissues to dissolve into gelatin. This process transforms the tough meat into a tender, smoke-filled treat.

In other words, while grilling is quick and hot, barbecue is slow and low. Among other cooking methods, it is most similar to braising.

When you taste barbecue, the virtues of the method become immediately apparent. The crusty, smoky exterior provides a satisfying chewiness that contrasts perfectly to the tender, moist, almost buttery tendrils of the inner meat.

But barbecue is more than just a way of cooking meat. It is also a kind of culinary lodestone for the American South, a ritual that is inseparable from the culture that gave it birth and that it in turn reinforces and nurtures.

Like other cult-status culinary icons, barbecue is at the center of intense regional loyalties and raging debates over things like the merits of a particular spice rub or whether to use a basting sauce.

What people grew up with is rather strictly dependent upon geography. In general, the arc of barbecue variation begins in North Carolina, where shredded pork reigns supreme. This version maintains its dominance in the Smoky Mountains region and into Tennessee. In Memphis, however, pork ribs begin to appear as a rival. And in Kansas City, Mo. — Memphis’s only real competition as the epicenter of barbecue culture — beef brisket enters the picture. By the time the arc drops down through Oklahoma and into Texas, shredded pork has disappeared, ribs are secondary and beef brisket is the king.

Within this framework are innumerable subtle differences in technique and ingredients. In North Carolina, for example, a subregional controversy of epic proportions concerns whether the finishing sauce — applied after the meat is cooked — should contain a bit of tomato.

Actually, the role of sauce in the barbecue gestalt is vastly overrated.

A time-honored Southern tradition holds that a barbecue is only as good as the quality of trash talk spouted by the pit master as the meat cooks. Many a garrulous cook has used this oral license to exaggerate the magical qualities of a personal ‘secret sauce.’ If you sort through the trash of the top competitors at any barbecue contest, you will find that the heart of their ‘family heirloom’ sauce is, in fact, almost invariably a commercial bottled version that they have doctored up.

Whether ketchup- or vinegar-based, the sauce is really nothing more than the finishing touch. Like a condiment, it should complement rather than obscure the smoky flavor of the meat.

Far more important than the sauce is the fire. Since the meat spends many hours in contact with smoke during the long cooking process, only live fire (as opposed to electric, for example) can impart the proper taste. As fuel, charcoal briquettes will do in a pinch. But hardwood lump charcoal is better, and hardwood itself is best, with oak, hickory or any fruitwood being top choices.

Logs are the size of choice for commercial barbecue makers with the right equipment or for backyard perfectionists who dig pits. It’s more difficult to use hardwood in a covered backyard grill, since logs won’t fit. With chunks of wood and a lot of patience, though, it can be done, as the following recipes show.

Start each one by building a small charcoal fire in one side of a covered cooker. Allow about 40 minutes for the charcoal to catch completely.

A key element is the pace at which to feed wood or charcoal to the fire once the charcoal is fully lighted. Keep the fire just smoldering, so that the smoke does most of the cooking and the temperature of the meat never gets higher than 212 degrees. Figure out your own refueling policy. One tactic that some people use is to pull a comfortable chair out of the house and sit next to the grill, adding a handful of wood chunks every time they finish a beer, or about every 30 or 40 minutes. If it gets tedious and you are tempted to add a larger amount of wood to speed the process, repeat the barbecue mantra: ‘Slow and low, slow and low.'”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “Barbecue: The (Unwritten) Lore of the Land,” by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, May 18, 1994

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