From the Ground Up: To barbecue or to grill?
by Ann M. Evans & Georgeanne Brennan
Last month, Ann took me on my first tour of the southeast – brief, but we covered territory from the border state of Kentucky to the deep southern state of Alabama. Prior to the trip, she had told me about the region’s devotion to barbecue and that unfortunately I wouldn’t get to taste the best, which is the pulled pork version of eastern North Carolina.
I would learn that every state, every section of every state, and even every city or back track road has “the best.” Whole books, blogs, academic studies and more are dedicated to barbecue. Essays and tomes have been written about techniques – what kind of wood, when to start the fire, a pit or not a pit, the content of the sauces, swabbing or not swabbing, cutting or pulling, what side dishes are essential, and of course, what is and what is not true barbecue. But even more intriguing to the historian that I was trained to be, is the amount of literature devoted to the cultural role of barbecue through the centuries and its origins and Diaspora.
Best of all, would, of course, be the samplings, not only of the meat, but the side dishes. (Turnip greens in Birmingham would be my favorite.)
We were attending the Slow Food USA National Congress in Louisville, Kentucky en route to Oxford, Mississippi to visit the USDA’s National Food Service Management Institute at the University of Mississippi, affectionately known as Ole Miss, then on to Birmingham. At the congress, when we talked with southerners, we always asked what was the best barbecue in Oxford and Birmingham. Names like City Grocery came up for Oxford and for Birmingham Full Moon and Jim ‘n Nicks.
Sadly we learned that because it is illegal to sell alcohol on Sunday in Oxford, virtually all the restaurants are closed on Sunday, the day we were arriving, including barbecues. With only a choice of sushi, Italian, or brewpub without brew, it was a missed opportunity to eat barbecue, and I’d have to content myself with reading about it in the southern food books I purchased the next day before leaving town.
At a Slow Food dinner at Woodland Farm hosted by Steve Wilson, owner and co-leader of Slow Food Bluegrass, a whole pig from the ranch was pit-roasted, and the meat was shredded and heaped on platters, part of a southern feed extravaganza. Smokey and rich, it was not what I expected. Where was the spicy, sticky sauce that I have long associated with southern style barbecue? I was on my learning curve.
Side dishes were cole slaw – good, like my Tennessee grandmother’s – and greens. Since the dinner was walk-around, stand up style, there were also lots of appetizers, and multiple bars set up with Kentucky bourbon and bartenders, plus white wine for Californians, we discovered.
Visiting with a friend in Elizabethtown, about 45 minutes outside Louisville, we asked him about barbecue. He lamented that we didn’t have time to go with him to his favorite barbeque dive; “all good barbecue comes from dives and joints. If it’s fussied up and refined, it just isn’t barbecue.” Another gem to process.
Asked if he ever made it – he’s an excellent cook – he looked askance at me.
“Oh, no. You don’t do your own – you go to a joint. You can get take-out if you want, but we never do. We just eat it there.”
This refrain was to come up again and again.
As we drove the six or so hours to Birmingham from Oxford, I noticed that just about every gas station also sold barbecue, and while I was game to try some, Ann warned me away from it, and I suppose rightly so. But still, it would have added to the experience.
At last, in Birmingham I was able to dig in. At Ann’s daughter’s suggestion, a suggestion made by one of her professors at Birmingham Southern College, where she’s a sophomore we went to Saw’s BBQ, along with two of her friends, one from Tennessee, the other from Texas. It was located in a downtown suburb, Homewood, next door to an antique shop, and had rave reviews posted. Decor was old time dive.
Barbecue rights and wrongs were part of the conversation as we waited for our plates, with all the girls comparing styles and where they’d eaten. I had a hard time choosing what to have – ribs, plates, sandwiches, mixed platters, plus turnip greens or Cole slaw, potato or macaroni salad, mashed potatoes or fried, or some of everything. I finally settled on the house special of 12-hour smoked pork barbeque, turnip greens, and potato salad. Please note that green salads — a California must-have — were not on the menu.
The paper plate arrived – a big one, with chunks of sliced pork butt, and paper cups of sides. It was good. A little like carnitas, I thought, but where was the sauce? There was a little, but again, not what I expected. Then one of the girls reached for what looked like a big ketchup squeeze bottle and slathered her pork sandwich with sauce. I did the same and discovered what I’d been looking for – down-home, home-made, smoky, vinegary, a little bit sweet barbecue sauce.
Sadly, that was my last barbecue because I headed home the next day. Ann promised to fly in some of her favorite BBQ from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a place called Allen & Son Pit Cooked BBQ. Most BBQ joints fly their food around the country for homesick native sons and daughters.
Now I know that, according to southern rules, what I do at home is grill, not barbecue. Although I do think my grandmother’s sauce concoction shortcut when spread over pork ribs makes a pretty tasty facsimile, though now I know I have a lot to learn about the real deal.
Barbecue Sauce Shortcut
This is the sauce I make for ribs and chicken – and it also makes a good glaze for meat loaf. Not the real deal, but still good and sticky.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
One-half onion, finely chopped
1 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worchester sauce
1 teaspoon lemon juice
In a saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. When it is hot, add the onion and saute until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and saute another minute, then stir in the ketchup, brown sugar, vinegar, mustard, Worchester sauce and the lemon juice. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 10 minutes, allowing the flavors to blend. Makes about 1 cup, enough for 5 pounds of ribs or 6 to 8 chicken pieces.
~ “Cornbread Nation 2: the United States of Barbecue,” edited by Lolis Eric Elie, Southern Food Alliance, University of North Carolina Press
This is a wonderful collection of essays and excerpts and includes chapters such as “A Portrait of the Delicacy as a Young Dish, or the Early Years”, “Traditions and Disputations” and “the Current Scene”.
~ “North Caroline Barbecue: Flavored by Time,” by Bob Garner. The everything to know about the subject, including recipes, histories and short stories about various North Carolina barbecue books, and a photo essay and instructions on how to cook a whole pig.
And, if you just want to taste some of Ann’s favorite North Carolina barbecue, make a telephone call and place an order. Here’s the link: http://durham.citysearch.com/profile/6158345/chapel_hill_nc/allen_son_pit_cooked_bar_b_q.html