Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Barbecue
The 4th of July is upon us! Break out the red, white and blue. Wave the flag. Watch a parade. Set off some fireworks. And, most important . . . eat some barbecue! Oh, yeah! I’m pretty sure that the Founding Fathers got together and said, “We need to hurry up and sign this Declaration of Independence so the new nation can have a day set aside for eating smoked meat!”
License to Grill
Before we start talking about barbecue, we must establish what it is. Can we please all acknowledge that there is a difference between REAL, WESTERN barbecue and grilling? Now, I’m all for grilling, you understand. In fact, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with a craving for a grilled hamburger, portabella mushroom burger, sweet potato burger or black bean burger. It’s like the grill of my dreams. But I’ll be the first to admit that’s not REALLY barbecue. Delicious? Yes! Barbecue? No! (And, let the record show that I don’t think a hot dog should meet anyone’s definition of barbecue. Or food, for that matter.)
Did you know that the USDA has an official definition of barbecue? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, barbecue is “(meat) cooked by the direct action of heat resulting from the burning of hardwood or the hot coals therefrom for a sufficient period to assume the usual characteristics of a barbecued article, which include the formation of a brown crust on the surface and the rendering of surface fat. The product may be basted with a sauce during the cooking process. The weight of barbecued meat shall not exceed 70 percent of the weight of the fresh uncooked meat.”
That definition brings up two points:
- “Therefrom” is really a word. I looked it up and it is, but it still looks weird to me.
- By the official USDA definition, meat cooked in a water smoker, which does not lose much of its original weight, is NOT barbecue. That’s sort of difficult for me to swallow (the idea, not the meat!). It looks like barbecue and it tastes like barbecue, but the government has declared that it cannot be sold as “barbecue”. Well, since barbecue is pretty near a religion in the West, I would argue that the USDA is infringing upon the separation of church of state!
Let the Smackdown Begin
Barbecue varies from region to region about as much as the accents of the people who serve it. My personal preference is barbecue cooked on a closed pit by people who sprinkle the word, “y’all,” through their conversations as liberally as they sprinkle spices in their barbecue sauce. Pork or beef? Tomato based or vinegar based? Dripping with sauce or coated in a dry rub? There are so many choices!
Texas is known for smoked beef brisket, served sliced or chopped with sauce. Tennessee is known for pulled pork. The Carolinas go whole hog for their barbecue by smoking . . . well, by smoking the whole hog! In Missouri, barbecue is more likely to mean ribs with a dry rub.
I’m a fan of Mom-and-Pop-hole-in-the wall barbecue joints! If you stop in virtually any town west of the Mississippi and ask for the best barbecue place in town, you will get a response! People have definite opinions when it comes to barbecue and the places that serve it. I like the kind of place that is decorated with glass Coca-Cola bottles and hazes of smoke wafting from the kitchen for ambiance. A friend of mine grew up working in her family’s barbecue restaurant in North Texas. She thinks I’ve romanticized barbecue and points out that, while her friends were wearing Jean Nate’ and Bonnie Bell Lip Smacker, she wore the alluring scent of hickory smoke and brisket! That doesn’t sound so bad to me!
It’s the Pits
Barbecue has long been a favorite food in the West. It goes well with the rugged Western persona. I mean, let’s examine it. To make good barbecue you need:
Good barbecue cannot be rushed. Don’t think you can wait until noon to decide to cook some barbecue for dinner. Like a fine wine, barbecue takes time! The good stuff is cooked for a long, looooong time over a low heat.
If you are fortunate enough to own a smoker or a barbecue pit, you’re all set! I’ve long had a hankering to own a mobile barbecue pit. Don’t ask me why! Maybe I just like the idea of meat on the go! While I really don’t need it, I’ve had my eye on a John Wayne Custom Barbecue Trailer known as “The True Pit”! Well, maybe I do need it because that’s pretty clever!
I don’t know about you, but I like my sauce on the side. Tomato based is my preference—with a bit of sweetness, if you please. But I’m willing to branch out and try different types.
As I reflect on the real meaning of Independence Day, I am led to believe that the world of barbecue is big enough to accommodate people of all tastes. I want to live in a country where people are free to spell barbecue as “Bar-B-Q,” “B-B-Q” or even “barbeque,” if they so choose. I want to see a land where people with different cuts of meat and all types of sauces and dry rubs are able to put aside their barbecue differences and live in peace and harmony. That’s the way the Founding Fathers would have wanted it!
Happy Fourth of July, all y’all!