What is Barbecue? Is that one of the most loaded questions in the South?
I must admit, I was born in the North. And while my heart is Southern now, I am still one of those uncommitted barbecue enthusiasts.
I have a confession to make, and I will apologize now, but growing up, barbecue to me meant grilling hamburgers and hot dogs. You really must forgive me, but the reality is that when Dad really spiced things up we had Italian sausage patties or Polish Sausage.
There wasn’t a lot of red sauce in my house growing up other than ketchup, and well, red sauce.
And when my mom made ribs – it was with those big, chunky country-style ribs with that sticky sweet Chinese barbecue sauce that comes in a glass jar. I can still remember her brushing it on with her little basting brush she used for chicken. And I remember giggling with my sisters at the name “Ah-So” sauce. “Say it five times fast,” my sister would dare.
Mom cooked those big ole stocky “spare ribs” in the oven. Man, I loved them, even though they resembled pork chops more than the slab of baby back ribs I know and love today.
So, when I am asked to judge barbecue greatness? Well, my ratings are somewhere between the Texas comparison of dry rubbed, bark-o-luscious beef ribs from Black’s and the green tomato kimchi topped pulled pork sandwich at Heirloom BBQ in Atlanta.
It’s all simply beautiful food. And to me, what matters most is the time and love that goes into the preparation.
BBQ is very personal, regional, and always argued about. Everyone has their way of doing things and bitter fights and rivalries go on all the time. BBQ politics are unbelievably intense.
Kansas City versus Texas versus North Carolina versus Georgia. It sounds like a college football gameday. It may as well be on that level since the argument over who’s barbecue is best is really the equivalent of the hottest college football rivalries. Like Georgia and Alabama.
I love them all. To some people that is sacrilege, but to me, each region has its pros and cons.
Personally, I think it’s all about the meat and the smoke. A good dry rub is essential. The best BBQ has no sauce at all, just a hint of spice from the dry rub and the intensely sweet, meaty smokiness of good care and technique. The best BBQ is made with slow-burning woods logs and chunks. Also, the meat should be cooked slowly, smoked more than seared. As much as 12 or even 18 hours, and if it’s less than four forget it, you’re getting fast food.
Lovers of Barbecue argue there should be no sauce on the meat. I am with that one because to me that is the difference between great and everything else. Great BBQ doesn’t need help. Sauce is help. I am of the camp that sauce belongs on the side.
Some places care about the sauce. They’d serve meat like my mom would fix up with a yummy secret-recipe sauce. If I am going to pick a saucy side, well I must admit I am a mustard girl or even sometimes a white sauce girl, but then there are my Georgia tangy sweet heat moments.
Okay, whatever. I like them all if they are good.
White bread versus Texas toast is another quandary for me. You must have bread with BBQ, but should it be toasted? I just can’t decide here. I like that slopped up Wonder Bread on the typical southern plate, but I would rather eat Texas toast. My only problem with the toast is then I want a sandwich.
One of the things I have no opinion on is Brunswick Stew. It makes no sense to me and everyone has their own crazy interpretation. I am sure there is some purpose for it, but whatever it is I don’t get it.
Now, mac cheese on the other hand. I am specific on my likes here. Creamy and smooth is a must at a proper BBQ and topped with slightly toasty breadcrumbs for some added texture. Not at all the same as baked mac cheese that I want to get at a southern table service restaurant.
Speaking of table service. A good BBQ place rarely has table service. In fact, some of the best ones I have ever been to are like long cafeteria lines and you’re just happy to get a tray.
Texas has the beef going for it. From brisket to beef ribs, I gotta say my best beef was in Texas. I can still taste those first bites of Black’s Beef brisket in Lockhart and the near-immediate feeling of my heart valves clogging from the rich beauty of it all.
Then there are places like Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta in a small place next to a liquor store, along a busy service road for the Perimeter. Heirloom is not the easiest restaurant to find, but it’s worth the journey.
The food at Heirloom is simple and honest – my kinda food. They fuse both Korean and Southern flavors, the natural product of two chefs with two very different backgrounds working together—Jiyeon Lee was a young pop sensation in South Korea, Cody Taylor a self-described hillbilly, raised in Texas and Tennessee.
And now, I would like to know what you think.
What’s your take on meat versus sauce? What’s your favorite side? Do you have a favorite region? What MUST a BBQ restaurant serve on their menu? What is the best fuel source? How long should meat be smoked? Dry rub? Brine? Oh, there are so many questions to ponder!
Send me your photos of your favorite places from around the world – from barbeque to barbacoa.
And now, let the arguments begin….