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What Is Barbecue, Really? Exploring America’s Favorite Cuisine
If you’re like most Americans, you probably refer to your summer cookouts as barbecues. Despite this common shorthand, slapping some burgers and dogs on a scorching-hot grill doesn’t resemble actual barbecue at all. What “true” barbecue means varies from region to region, but at its core, barbecue is about cooking meat slowly over woodsmoke. Celebrated food author Michael Pollan explores the origin of this American cuisine in his book, “Cooked.” After years of research and hundreds of meals, he favors the definition of barbecue provided to him by an Alabama pitmaster named Sy Erskine: “The mystic communion of fire, smoke, and meat in the total absence of water.” When you begin researching different styles of barbecue, however, you realize that nearly everything else surrounding barbecue is a matter of debate. Barbecue, like the country that created it, is influenced by multiple nations and cultures. It exists in various forms across the country, particularly in the South, its spiritual homeland. Wherever you go, you’ll find pitmasters and eaters arguing over the merits of beef versus pork, vinegar versus tomato, and many other characteristics. While it would take countless hours to become a barbecue expert, familiarizing yourself with the major styles will certainly make you the voice of wisdom at your next summer get-together. NORTH CAROLINA Perhaps the most stringent school of barbecue is found in eastern North Carolina. Here, barbecue does not so much describe a style of cooking as it does one particular item: a slow-smoked, chopped whole hog, seasoned with a sauce of vinegar and pepper. The pork here is not pulled, and it contains none of the sweeter, tomato-based sauces you’ll find on grocery store shelves. The traditional side is a finely chopped coleslaw. The Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC, is perhaps America’s most famous restaurant serving this uber-traditional style of barbecue, but its pitmaster, Sam Jones, is not the type to venerate one style of cooking above all others. “I believe there’s a place for all types of barbecues,” he says. Even with such an inclusive mindset, don’t expect beef brisket to show up on his menus anytime soon. The Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC, is perhaps America’s most famous restaurant serving this uber-traditional style of barbecue, but its pitmaster, Sam Jones, is not the type to venerate one style of cooking above all others. “I believe there’s a place for all types of barbecues,” he says. Even with such an inclusive mindset, don’t expect beef brisket to show up on his menus anytime soon. TEXAS In the Lone Star State, on the other hand, beef predominates pork, and brisket is the most iconic cut. Central Texas barbecue is primal and unabashedly
smoky. It owes its heritage in part to German meat markets of the 1800s, but it’s a creation all its own. Sauce is often frowned upon here, as it obscures the flavor of the smoke. Dry rub is the only addition to the potent mixture of fire, wood, smoke, and meat. As the rub caramelizes, it creates a crust, known as bark, around the meat. In addition to brisket, you’ll also find beef sausage and short ribs on traditional Texas barbecue menus. These are humble cuts, widely available and inexpensive. The magic results come from a combination of technique and time. Aaron Franklin, proprietor of Austin’s legendary Franklin Barbecue, writes, “The fact that in Texas barbecue you’re taking one of the worst pieces of the animal and converting it into one of the best is a miracle itself.” TENNESSEE Memphis-style is the closest representation of what most people think of as barbecue. Pork ribs and pulled pork are the stars here. Memphis is also the birthplace of the tomato-based barbecue sauces you’re probably familiar with. That sauce covers pulled pork shoulder and is also slathered on “wet” ribs. “Dry” ribs, as you might expect, feature only a dry rub of salt, sugar, and spices. OTHER REGIONS There are far more regional specialties and characteristics than we have space to cover here, but a few dishes and techniques are worthy of a brief mention. In St. Louis, the deckle or point of the brisket is smoked longer than the rest, creating burnt ends. South Carolina pitmasters are fond of a mustard-based sauce known as “Carolina gold.” For eaters with more adventurous palates, Kentucky barbecue, which often features mutton, is worth trying. At its heart, barbecue reflects the nation that created it. It’s diverse, creative, and simultaneously humble and sophisticated. While American barbecue is fundamentally its own thing, you can find cuisines from every corner of the globe that take advantage of the unique deliciousness of smoked meat. If you’re curious about the ways people from Korea to Denmark are making this ancient method of cooking their own, check out the “BBQ” episode of “Ugly Delicious” on Netflix. Here at Taylor Dental, the King of barbecue is Dr. LeBlanc. He and his team have been recognized at several competitions for their Memphis style barbecue (although he would call it Louisiana style).
No matter which style you believe reigns supreme, barbecue is the perfect food for summer.
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