It’s barbeque time, and take it from someone who knows. What passes for barbeque around here is, well, not good.
Why do I know? I’m from Memphis where barbeque is imbued in the spirit and soul of the community. The French call it terroir, that environmental “ it” factor which gives their wines that Frenchy essence. The essence of barbeque is bred in the bones of the people from the River City.
Pretty much all year long in Memphis, you can inhale char broiled aromas wafting from old oil barrel smokers, gourmet outdoor kitchens, and the ubiquitous backyard charcoal grills. Pit masters from across the country compete in the annual Memphis in May World Barbeque Cooking Contest.
And, yes, I know other places claim barbeque prowess—St. Louis’ meaty country ribs aren’t bad, Texans do know how to barbeque brisket, but let’s get real-- what North Carolina calls barbeque is kinda pitiful. I know what I’m talking about.
For too many summers, this transplanted Southerner has silently observed the sad brittle results of meat sacrificed on flaming hot grills, drenched in generic bottled sauce. I’ve also been disappointed time and again by the too fatty, chewy, over sauced meat that’s served up in most local barbeque restaurants. People, this is not real barbeque!
July 4, the unofficial kickoff of summer grilling, is days away. Perfect timing for me to accept my civic and patriotic duty to clear up mass regional confusion for the barbe-clueless.
Consider this a short primer: to begin with, hot dogs and hamburgers do not a barbeque make. That’s a cookout. Barbeque is a food art form, which requires a special methodology-- low and slow indirect heat. For the record any protein—pork, chicken, even fish-- can be barbequed, but each should have its own rub and sauce. Dousing whatever’s on the grill with the same sauce is a no no.
In Memphis, pulled pork is a staple-- those slivers of highly seasoned shredded pork topped with a healthy dollop of coleslaw and nestled in a bun. But, pork ribs are a Memphis signature—baby back ribs (not the fleshy country ribs)—massaged with a special (often secret recipe) rub, and then placed on the grill for hours long cooking. Done right, the fall-off-the-bone meat doesn’t need sauce. But, for those who like it, the best sauces are scratch made, don’t detract from the rub, and are a not too thick glaze added just before the meat comes off the grill. So there you have it-- real barbeque defined.
Look, even after years of living here, I wouldn’t dare challenge a New Englander to their clam chowder credentials. So, take this advice in the spirit in which I offer it. Stop calling what you’re doing barbeque, unless it really is. And hope you’re driving by on the day I fire up my grill.
Callie Crossley is the host of Under the Radar.