Ill be blunt: I grew up eating BBQ. I learned from experts how to assess, eat, and appreciate BBQ. I am not a vegetarian, no matter how rational the arguments are for that food style. Do I feel a little guilty? Sometimes. Have I seen meat changes that scare me? Oh yeah. For example, when I was a kid, beef was grass fed on local small farms (such as ours) by necessity. We took a bull to the butcher every year and had a freezer of small white packages to eat (but my mother drew the line at brains). No fuss, no pretensions. There were no massive nationally packaged meat recalls (even if there should have been).
This week we made the mistake of again trying beef labeled BBQ at a Virginia restaurant that gets high ratings every year from locals. The brisket was not poorly trimmed, the ribs were not dried out. But it was NOT BBQ. They can wish all they want out here, but in ten years I have yet to find anyone who can do BBQ correctly. No, I wont be diplomatic and recognize what they call Carolina BBQ as BBQ (for the un-initiated, its roasted, boiled, or steamed meat with vinegar on it. Thats not BBQ).
So here are some simple rules:
1. BBQ is not toy food. No cutesy buckets for bones, no cutesy oversized or cartoon stamped napkins, no hats.
2. Smoke. If there is no smoking of the meat, there is NO BBQ.
3. BBQ is not haute food. Not nouvelle cuisine. No tiny portions with exotic toppings.
4. Once past smoke- there is flavoring. It can be rubbed into the meat (known as a dry rub) before smoking, or it can be bottled in an old Ball jar to ladle out on top at a customers discretion, but it is never, ever, just ketchup. Or ketchup with a little Worcestershire thrown in, then slathered on meat when serving. No no no. And NO VINEGAR.
5. The best BBQ comes from Memphis, Kansas City, Austin, or parts around these cities, 99.9% of which are WEST of the Mississippi river. Sorry Chicago; never had good BBQ in the whole greater area, even though I love the town and lived there for several years. Not in Detroit, not Jackson, not Atlanta.
6. Beef is primary, brisket and ribs being the mainstays. They used to be the crap cuts, and now one has a hard time spending the cash for them in the grocery. Go figure.
7. Pork is secondary, but a strong second.
8. Chicken is third and tricky to do right. It dries out fast, and the skin can be really disgusting if not dealt with properly.
9. Sausages are not BBQ. They can be extremely well crafted, and thrown on the smoker late in the game with other meat, but they are not BBQ.
10. You can add an endless variety of herbs and spices to your rubs and sauces, you can lay bundles of herbs on top while smoking. You can use a single type of chip or charcoal to smoke, or a combination at different stages of the process. You can use honey, molasses, brown sugar, or even kool-aid in your sauces. But the sauces are usually, heck almost always, and Ill be honest Ive never had a good one that wasnt, a variation on a reddish-brown in color.
11. You can fist fight over plain smoked meat, or sauced. But it still has to be smoked first (number 2 needed reiterating).
12. Places that advertise themselves as BBQ restaurants with cutesy logos, dancing pigs, fat men in messy white aprons and goofy grins- all do not bode well. BBQ is understated. It is serious business about the art of smoking meat. Not vegetables, not fries, just meat. BBQ was the food of the poor, the cattle herders, the communal church feasts; it was a way to cook, and preserve meat as well as make it tasty. Remember that.
13. Smoke takes time. You can get amazing BBQ at a neighbors house, a shack, or a white linen table cloth place (but in my experience this is unusual, unless the eatery has been around for years and is on old railway and cattle drive routes). It is truly not that difficult to do, but few restaurants seem to want to put in the time.
14. If you experience good BBQ, youll never go back. Youll be poisoned with wanting, begging, someone to surprise you and actually make BBQ instead of just advertising that they sell it. Especially on the East Coast.
15. Husband has mastered the basics of good BBQ and is experimenting every year. This is one of the reasons I love him. This is one of the reasons neighbors within a four block radius lift their noses in the summer, close their eyes, and wonder if we are going to have another backyard party soon. Its also the reason in our first years at our house, neighbors would come into my yard, faces creased with worry, because no one was home (I had gone to the grocery) and they saw smoke rising from the big black barrel shaped smoker in the back yard. No, it was not an unattended or accidental fire. They have since learned (oy, the East Coast).
This is not an exhaustive list. It’s probably not all the rules that need to be posted. There are, I am sure, as many rules as there are BBQ competitions, and all of them posted somewhere on the web. These are my rules. The rules of my parents, grand-parents, and the people they came from. These are my expectations, and the reason I am, like a fool, still sampling restaurant fare, and always expecting better.
There are not a lot of places where smoking is an acceptable word. This summer get out and smoke. Read about how, ask around, youll figure it out. Talk to a butcher- really, find one and talk to them. Learn how to ask for a cut. You might try to get to know a local farmer or two as well, someone who actually lets the beef on hoof eat pasture grass. Think about going co-op, and buy a side or whole carcass with a friend, and have that local butcher cut it up for you. Then start smoking. Play with the herbs, eye ball that big stock pot and think about mixing up some sauce. Oh, and number 16? Have fun.