Skip to comments.Real Southern Barbeque
Posted on 05/13/2003 4:44:31 PM PDT by stainlessbanner
The origins of term "barbeque" and the cooking methods associated with it are lost to history. The term itself may derive from a French term meaning something to the effect of "head to tail." Indeed, much barbeque involves cooking the entire animal. Some stories say the tradition in the US dates to the 1700s in Virginia and North Carolina, among colonists who perhaps learned the technique from American Indians or Caribbean aborigines. Given that the basic requisites are meat and fire, barbequing probably dates back about as far back as human use of fire.
As to the term "barbeque" today, different people take it different ways. There is "grilling" the meat is within several inches of the flames, such as with an hibachi, and you get grill marks; and "smoking" the meat is nowhere near the flames, and the hot smoke itself cooks the meat. According to 19th-century cowboy traditions, the meat should be cooked at around 200 degrees F., so any place near a flame would be too hot. The smoke flavor itself is part of the objective; keeping the meat tender and juicy is the rest (though I don t believe I ve ever eaten a juicy barbequed brisket).
For "barbeque," some people think smoking and some think grilling. It would be helpful if we could come up with some additional terms one for smoking and then slathering with barbeque sauce, one for smoking while basting with barbeque sauce, another for grilling while basting. Perhaps another for grilling and then basting. For now, when somebody sells or otherwise offers you something they claim has been barbequed, look around or ask how it was cooked. You re not being rude; cooking meat is an art, and the more you can learn about the flavors and textures that result from different techniques, the better. Most cooks and chefs are pleased to hear "how did you prepare this?"
At cookoffs, Texans often will smoke a piece of meat for six hours or more, up to six feet away from the flame. A more common technique is to have the meat directly over the flame, but a low flame, with the whole contraption enclosed to keep in the smoke. This is a more practical alternative to fabricating a grill that measures 3' by 5' by 7'.
There s pretty much one real regional difference in the South with regard to the meat. The vast majority of Dixie, upon hearing "barbeque," assumes pork; Texans don t. Rather, they often assume beef brisket. As to the wood used for smoking, there is disagreement, but the differences are found in every town and don t follow regional lines (except that some hardwoods were more available in some places than others in the past; today, you can get anything at a big grocery store). Hickory and mesquite are the most popular; applewood and "hardwood" are still seen here and there. The real disagreement is over whether the variety of wood matters much. There is much less disagreement that wood gives more smoke flavor than charcoal. There can be no disagreement that gas grills don t impart any smoke flavor.
There are more differences with regard to sauces. In Texas, barbequed meat is usually served with sauce on the side if there is any sauce at all. My favorite restaurant in College Station (I can t remember its name) served half a raw onion, a 4-oz. slice of cheddar cheese, a pickle, and 8 ounces of whatever meat you wanted, all on a piece of butcher paper. They gave you a knife (no fork) and a jar of their own barbeque sauce. The meat choices were pork tenderloin; beef that could pass for tenderloin; polish sausage; and I forget what else. Maybe chicken. The sauce I remember: Thick and fresh (hot from the pot, actually), but with very little flavor beyond tomato no pepper heat, no vinegar tang, no sweetness, no real spicy piquancy.
That s probably not typical of Texas barbeque sauces. A list of ingredients from one of the self-proclaimed "best" Texas barbeque sauces begins with "tomato concentrate, distilled vinegar, corn syrup, salt, spices ." That would be typical of barbeque sauces around the country: They ll have a tomato base, vinegar, sweetener, always a little garlic and onion, and some heat. They sometimes have a puckering tang from prepared (powdered) mustard or turmeric; and some have a little citrus flavoring of some sort. Mustard-based sauces show up in some places; they tend to be less sweet than the brownish sauces.
Those are the basic two, with the tomato-based sauce being the most popular. However, eastern North Carolina and Virginia have a tradition of their own: A watery, vinegar-based sauce with no tomato, sugar, or mustard flavor. I ordered a bottle and tasted it, and can report that it is similar to any "Louisiana" hot sauce (the ingredients of which should always be only vinegar, peppers, and salt). The North Carolina sauce added some other spices that gave it an extremely dry, almost bitter flavor, similar to a Thai pepper sauce. The particular one I sampled has won awards in North Carolina, but to me it seemed to be lacking something. The spices made the sauce seem to want for some sweetness, which impression does not accompany the taste of a Louisiana hot sauce.
If you haven t had the chance to sample any local Southern barbeque sauces, despair not: The flavor that best captures the typical sauce can be had for 99 cents just buy a bottle of Kraft barbeque sauce. That isn t shameful Kraft hires food experts to develop sauces for a living, and they measure proportions in parts per million. Kraft, by the way, sells about 50 varieties, and they re all inexpensive and good. Don t spend $4 on a bottle of sauce heck, Kraft makes the more expensive "gourmet" Bullseye sauces. They re not any better than the 99-cent stuff.
Most local Southern sauces taste similar to one Kraft variety or another. At one of the more famous barbeque joints in the Southeast, Dreamland (based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama), the sauce tastes exactly like the regular Kraft with a little sugar and heat added. That the good local sauces and Kraft sauces are similar means only that Southerners and food giants are arriving at a good flavor. And some of Kraft s 50 relatively new varieties probably are themselves imitations of, or inspired by, various local twists on the basic theme.
Indeed, just as government interventions lag behind the market s identification of needs and their solutions (e.g., in the early 20th century, the government decided to write child-labor laws after the economy began to generate enough wealth that children weren t any longer being sent to factories by their parents, and after special-interest groups decided they were outraged by a practice that was already going away), big corporations get "new" food-product ideas from foods people already have. The Oreo probably wasn t even an exception. They won t tell, though; I tried to get information out of Kraft, to no avail.
So, "barbeque," whatever the term means, isn t a Southern invention; surely it s as old as the hills. All we did was perfect it. The reasons why would be pure speculation, but they probably begin with our better climate, our love of hunting and fishing, our greater sociability, our slower-paced life, and our tasty pigs; and end with the only possible result of millions of people enjoying a craft that requires them to do all the work every time: Innovations happen randomly, frequently, sometimes serendipitously, but inexorably.
A note about perfection: Theoretically, there s no such thing. Practically, however, every time you barbeque something well and everybody loves it, it s perfect; and as tastes change over time, recipes and techniques will evolve to accommodate them, and it ll still be perfect.
billbears, I know the feeling.
Cherry's BBQ is here in Wilson County where I work.
I never take a whole hour for lunch because I am too busy.
So, it's just a bit too far from my office to go there for lunch & return in (what I consider) a reasonable amount of time.
Usually I go to Parker's. I do not really care for Bill's.
LLLLET'S GET READY TO RUMBLLLLLE!!!!
Right about almost everything--except you're describing South Carolina BBQ.