The Great Barbecue Controversy

As one of the few culinary aspects of American culture which isn’t dismissed by most foodies, barbecue allows those food snobs and elitists (said with tongue firmly in cheek) connect with the common man. But the question I have is simple – What the constitutes barbecue?

For background on my befuddlement, you have to understand my background: I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. To us, barbecueing meant turning on the grill in the backyard, and cooking hamburgers and hot dogs over heated charcoal or other open sources of heat. We also have BBQ’d ham, which consisted of putting chip-chopped ham in a slow cooker along with a few cups of Kraft BBQ sauce. We may have enjoyed teh food, but we obviously didn’t know what the hell we were talking about.

For the record: if you’re turning on the grill in the back yard and making burgers and hot dogs, you are, in fact, grilling and not barbecueing. If you want to mince words, think of it this way – grilling is almost always a fast process over high heat and barbecue is almost always a slow process near indirect heat.

Using this defintion, it allows for many variations not just throughout the country, but the world. For example:

Texas: Barbecueing to what others call “hot smoking”—cooking with both smoke and low heat for hours over woods such as oak, mesquite, or pecan. The meats most often used are Sliced brisket, sausage, and pork ribs. Sauce? Sometimes, but at cookoffs, meats are judged without sauce.

Tennessee: There’s debate in Memphis on what constitutes Memphis Barbecue. For some, it’s dry-rub ribs, made with a spice rub applied during or right after they’ve been cooked that represent the Memphis style. For others, it’s wet ribs, basted with a mild, sweet barbecue sauce before and after smoking that cooks into the meat over the 10- to 12-hour process. For others it’s pulled pork sandwiches. So, generally, its pork ribs, with a spice rub or barbecue sauce. If you want a barbecue sandwich, it’ll be pulled pork with sauce.

Kansas & Missouri: Beef is the meat of choice, although others can be used. Heavy use of sauce in this area, and is basted heavily in sauce during and after cooking. The sauce usually is rather rich, tangy and spicy. Dry rubs are also used.

Carolinas: The Carolinas are pork fans. Some areas cook the entire hog, others just the pork shoulder, some make pulled pork. The sauce is what makes the Carolinas unique. They tend to use either a vinegar and pepper based sauce (in eastern North Carolina), a tomato based sauce (the Piedmont area of N.C) or a mustard based sauce (in the Columbia, SC area).

What should you use as fuel? Anything you darn well please. Charcoal, Propane, Mesquite, whale blubber, whatever gives you the taste that you desire. It’s barbecue if it’s cooked with indirect heat for a long period of time.

It should be stated that slow cooking meat over indirect heat is not an American invention, although we’ve certainly worked on perfecting the technique. This technique has been used in Italy, Australia, Greece, the sub-Saharan regions of Africa…suffice to say this technique has been around. There’s proof that this technique was used in the neolithic era.

Why? Because smoking preserves meat. Smoke can contain many components, including phenolic compoundsm which slow fat oxidation, and organic acids and aldehydes, which inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungus. Barbecueing changed the way we could get our protein. We could now store meat for months, and have it for dinner in the middle of winter. It allowed us to stay in one place, and not have to hunt for other protein sources. That’s a pretty impressive pedigree to have for a cooking technique.

Self-indulgence time. I dig word etymologies. And barbecue has a relation to several other terms which I find fascinating. Barbecue seems to have come from the Carib word of babracot, which was the cooking pit/grill technique the Caribs used to cook their meat. The French, while in the area of the Caribbean, had a synonym for babracot: boucon. Boucon is the source word for the English term buccaneer. Why? Because these soon to be pirates got their start on the island of Tortuga, grilling various meat products.

I find this stuff trivial, yet endlessly fascinating.

Another note: The spanish word for dried meat is charqui, and is the basis for the word jerk or jerky, which loops back to the Carribean jerk Chicken. So when you have jerked chicken, you’re having Carribean Barbecue.


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