July 18, 2013
If any gastronomical treat could give the proverbially American apple pie a run for its money, it might just be barbecue. The culinary tradition of cooking meat low and slow over indirect flame (the true definition of barbecue – imposters who grill, take note) has become so prevalent over the years that BBQ itself represents a sort of pop culture, spawning TV shows, historically-focused road trips, and even fusion dishes like BBQ tacos. Barbecue’s ability to reflect whatever might be hot at the time (from reality TV to the taco craze) isn’t new; in fact, barbecue has a long history of permeation, perhaps best experienced by the ongoing barbecue feud that plagues the South. From the Atlantic to the Gulf, bordered by the western outposts of Texas and Kansas City, the area of the United States known as the “barbecue belt” houses four distinct barbecue traditions – Carolina, Texas, Memphis and Kansas City. From where did these traditions come, and how, in a relatively small region of the country, have they evolved along such different paths? The history of American barbecue is as diverse as the variations themselves, charting the path of a Caribbean cooking style brought north by Spanish conquistadors, moved westward by settlers, and seasoned with the flavors of European cultures.
The first indigenous tribes Christopher Columbus encountered on the island he named Hispaniola had developed a unique method for cooking meat over an indirect flame, created using green wood to keep the food (and wood) from burning. Reports indicate that the Spanish referred to this new style of cooking as barbacoa: the original barbecue. As the Spanish explorers who followed Columbus turned their expeditions north, they brought the cooking technique with them. In 1540, close to present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, the Chicksaw tribe, in the presence of explorer Hernando de Soto, cooked a feast of pork over the barbacoa. Eventually, the technique made its way to the colonies, traveling as far north as Virginia.
Barbecue belt residents would argue that the beef-based BBQ of Texas, or the mutton-based BBQ found in Kentucky, doesn’t constitute authentic barbecue. To be real barbecue, purists like North Carolina native Jim Villas (author of an article, first published in Esquire, aptly titled “My Pig Beats Your Cow”) argue that the meat must be exclusively porcine, because the original BBQ-ers of the southern colonies depended on the cheap, low-maintenance nature of pig farming. Unlike cows, which required large amounts of feed and enclosed spaces, pigs could be set loose in forests to eat when food supplies were running low. The pigs, left to fend for themselves in the wild, were much leaner upon slaughter, leading Southerns to use the slow-and-low nature of barbecue to tenderize the meat. And use it they did. During the pre-Civil War years, Southerners ate an average of five pounds of pork for every one pound of cattle. Their dependence on this cheap food supply eventually became a point of patriotism, and Southerners took greater care raising their pigs, refusing to export their meat to the northern states. By this time, however, the relationship between the barbecue and pork had been deeply forged.
But the story of the South’s penchant for pork does little to explain the variations between their barbecue styles. For this, one must look beyond the borders of America, to the influence that colonial immigrants had on the flavor and preparation of the meat. The original styles of barbecue are thought to be those that originated in the easternmost colonies, like the vinegar-based “whole hog” barbecue found in Virginia and North Carolina. The technique of adding sauce to the meat as it cooks came from British colonists who incorporated the idea of basting to preserve the juices within the meat with the Caribbean barbecue technique. North Carolina’s vinegar-based sauces are also a remnant of these Briton’s penchant for the tart sauce. In South Carolina, which housed a large population of French and German immigrants, a mustard-based sauce was born, again, a reflection of the immigrant populations’ traditional preferences. Mustard has long been a fixture in both country’s cuisines: think of the famous Dijon in France (used in everything from tarte aux moutarde to the omnipresent bistro salad dressing) or the German’s penchant for including sweet and spicy mustard alongside their favorite wursts.
From Carolina barbecue, the trend moved westward, eventually entering Texas. German immigrants in Texas had the land to cultivate cattle, and it wasn’t long before Texans were applying Carolina techniques to a different sort of animal entirely. In Memphis, the regionally unique sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce was born from the city’s status as a popular port along the Mississippi River. Memphis residents could easily obtain a variety of goods, including molasses, which provided the region’s sweet barbecue taste. Out of Memphis’ barbecue genes, the last of America’s four main barbecue styles – Kansas City barbecue – was born. In the early 1900s, a Memphis-born man by the name of Henry Perry settled in Kansas City and opened a barbecue restaurant. In the restaurant, which Doug Worgul, in his book on the history of Kansas City barbecue, credits as the origin of the city’s particular barbecue style, Perry followed the style of his Memphis roots, using a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce. He did not, however, adhere to the stringent requirements that called for a pork-only barbecue style, and allowed beef and other meats to be sold as well. Expert Dotty Griffith refers to Kansas City barbecue as the ultimate amalgamation of East and West (Texas) barbecue.
But history can only go so far to explain the pleasure that occurs when meat hits smoke (and sometimes sauce). Barbecue lovers looking to savor the distinct flavors of America’s four barbecue styles aren’t alone; in fact, the siren call of the barbecue belt has caused many to make a pilgrimage to the region. Travel routes have been suggested for aficionados looking to chow down on meat cooked low-and-slow, but for those really looking to expand their barbecue knowledge, check out the Daily Meal’s recently published 2013 guide to the “Ultimate BBQ Road Trip,” which spans over 5,120 miles and includes 60 of the country’s best examples of barbecue.
February 8, 2011
Anyone who watched American television in the 1980s probably remembers the Australia tourism commercials with Paul Hogan (aka Crocodile Dundee) saying he’d “slip another shrimp on the barbie” for us. Never mind that Australians don’t use the word “shrimp”—they call them prawns—the catchphrase stuck, along with its concession to American nomenclature.
It is true, though, that Aussies love a barbecue. In the two weeks I was there over the holidays, I attended no fewer than four. Most featured sausages and marinated chicken, usually served with ketchup (or tomato sauce, as they call it) as the only condiment. But one barbecue was different.
The friends I stayed with in Melbourne are a bi-continental married couple—the Australian husband, Konrad, met his American wife, Nikki, while she was studying abroad in Queensland—who had returned to his homeland after about seven years in the States. During his time in America, including a year in Jacksonville, Florida, Konrad had developed a deep appreciation for Southern-style barbecue. Since returning home, with nowhere local to sate his cravings, he had bought a smoker and made it his project to learn how to replicate his favorite foods himself. During my visit he planned a backyard bash to introduce his Aussie friends to a barbecue with all the Dixie fixin’s—pulled pork, brisket and beer-can chicken with four kinds of homemade barbecue sauce on the side, plus potato salad, macaroni and cheese, baked beans and cornbread. Sweet tea and mint juleps were on the drink menu.
But first we had to go shopping. It turned out that the main ingredient in cornbread—cornmeal—was not stocked at local supermarkets. We tracked down a Spanish market in the artsy Fitzroy neighborhood (the Melbourne equivalent of New York’s Williamsburg or L.A.’s Los Feliz) where we found a package of P.A.N. brand, which had a drawing of a sassy-looking lady with her hair tied up in a polka-dotted scarf.
Since we were out for the rest of the afternoon and evening, this meant carrying around a sack of cornmeal everywhere we went. “Pan” became a kind of mascot, and we took a series of photos with “her” that became increasingly ridiculous as the night wore on.
Konrad and Nikki spent the better part of the next day preparing for the feast that afternoon. For the most part, the food seemed to be a hit with the Aussies. The biggest surprise was the baked beans—over there, as in England, baked beans are most commonly eaten at breakfast with eggs and toast. Their version comes out of the Heinz can in a relatively bland tomato sauce without the zip of BBQ baked beans, and some of the guests were downright excited about having them in this new context. The macaroni and cheese and the smoked meats and sauces also got raves.
As for the cornbread, I think Pan, which was pre-cooked, was the kind of cornmeal meant for arepas (delicious South American corn fritters) and not quite right for American cornbread. Although I didn’t get to try the resulting corn muffins before they disappeared at the party, they must have tasted alright anyway.
Maybe next time, they’ll introduce the Aussies to one of my favorite Southern dishes, shrimp and grits. But I’m sorry, y’all, “prawns and grits” just sounds wrong.
July 20, 2010
I spent last week in and around Cape Town, South Africa, traveling with my mom to attend my brother’s wedding. All we knew ahead of time about South African cuisine was that they love a good cookout, and sure enough, our first meal there turned out to be a braai (Afrikaans for “roasted meat,” though like “barbecue,” the word is used to describe the event as well as the food itself) at the home of my brother’s new in-laws.
They seemed surprised that I was so impressed by the wood-fired brick oven built into their outdoor patio—apparently those are about as ubiquitous in South Africa as backyard gas grills are in America. There, as here, the grill tends to be literally manned, while the kitchen is women’s turf (at least in the homes I visited). On that particular Sunday afternoon, a guy named Willem was the chef d’jour.
See the boxy metal container inside the grill in this photo? That’s where Willem stoked a wood fire for at least an hour while the meat marinated. From time to time, he shook the container so that hot embers fell out and could be raked into a layer under the rest of the grill, creating a low, even source of heat.
“A good braai can take all day. It’s not just a meal, it’s an occasion, a time to get together and talk and relax outside,” he explained as my stomach rumbled. Finally, he brought out the meat, starting with a long rope of boerewors (sausage) which he coiled inside a clamshell-style metal grilling basket.
When I asked what was in it, he shrugged.
“I don’t know, just minced meat. Boer means farmers, and wors means sausage,” he explained.
“So….it’s made of minced farmers?” I responded, generating a round of startled laughter.
Next up were chicken sosaties, or what I would call kebabs, one batch marinated in mustard and yogurt and the next in a sticky-sweet barbecue glaze. Then came lamb chops, and finally, some three hours after it all started, the food was ready to eat.
I don’t usually eat much meat, but when traveling, my mantra is “be open,” which extends to both mind and mouth. Besides, I was ravenous! So I dug in, following the lead of others. We ate the meat with our hands, dipping pieces of wors in a sweet curry sauce, picking up the lamb chops like sandwiches, and plucking bites of wonderfully tender chicken off the skewers. For side dishes, there was also mealie pap, a kind of corn porridge served with tomato and onion sauce, and a salad replete with chunks of avocado (or just avo, as they call it).
Pretty tasty, but if I were braai-ing, I’d love to try some vegetables and fish, or even a pizza…
June 18, 2010
As you’re probably aware, Father’s Day is this Sunday in the United States. Wondering what you can cook up to make the day special? Here are a few fun ideas:
1. A truly tasteful tie. People blog about the strangest things. A few months ago, I came across someone who just likes putting weird things in coffee, and yesterday, I got an email from a young guy who “likes neckties. A lot.” He’s got an entire blog called Tiepedia, and for Father’s Day, he collected a bunch of Flickr photos of necktie cakes. Enjoy, and perhaps be inspired to create your own. (Come on, does he ever wear the real ties you pick out, anyway? Might as well give him the kind you can all share.)
2. Mower dessert? Torture Dad sweetly by reminding him of his household chores. Or give him these lawnmower cupcakes along with a coupon promising to take those chores off his hands for a while.
3. Thank him for raising such a brat. Then make up for it by grilling him some of Bobby Flay’s beer-braised brats.
4. Think he’s full of beans? I don’t know about your father, but mine drinks more coffee than Juan Valdez himself, so I often give him a bag or two of good beans. (And since he’s a bit of a nerd, one year I gave him this T-shirt depicting a caffeine molecule.) I bet he’d also love a coffee cake made with these recipes from Joy the Baker and The Pioneer Woman, both of which involve actual coffee.
April 19, 2010
As I explained a few weeks ago, we’re trying something new here at Food & Think, a semi-regular feature called Inviting Writing. Each month, we’ll offer our readers a general theme to chew on—this month’s was “manners”—and an example of a related story. Then, we hope you’ll feel inspired to e-mail us your own true, food-related stories on that theme.
Thank you to those of you that responded to our call for submissions! We’ve selected a few of the best, and will run them on Mondays for the next several weeks. If yours wasn’t chosen, please try again next month; we’ll announce a new theme in May.
By Katrina Moore
I grew up in a small town in East Tennessee, in a neighborhood where the ladies looked perfectly put-together every day, paid their landscapers, took on charity projects and went to church with their husbands on Sundays.
“Manners Class” was my seventh-grade term for an etiquette course taught in the home of Mrs. Thorson, an elegant Southern woman with the cleanest house I’d ever seen. There, we learned poise by walking with books on our heads, which was cause for much giggling in a group of clumsy adolescents. We learned what colors looked best with our skin and whether we were a spring, summer, fall, or winter color palate. We discussed attending social events and talking to boys; I think we even had a lesson on waltzing. This was saccharine Southern charm at its sweetest and most sinister.
In one of our lessons, Mrs. Thorson sat us around her kitchen table. We learned the purpose of each fork, knife, spoon, and plate. We learned not to eat with our fingers unless the situation directly called for it. When buttering bread, for example, one is to tear off only the amount one can put in her mouth, rather than buttering and attempting to bite into the whole thing at once. We were excited to try out our new skills at the graduation dinner, a dress-up meal at a fancy place in the city.
The dinner involved much dainty sipping, meat cutting, and napkin folding, but I was so focused on perfection that I neglected to have any fun. Looking back, I see an awkward 12-year-old desperately trying to fit into a genteel environment. I thought I might grow up to be like these neighborhood women: charming, smiling, and poised. Before I understood that the smiles were all too often replacements for sincerity, I wanted to be like them and didn’t understand why I wasn’t.
About a week later, I attempted to eat barbecued ribs with the same delicacy I employed at the graduation dinner, but the ribs refused. A fork and knife proved to slide them all over my plate, smearing it with red-brown sauce. With some prodding from my family, I finally acknowledged the necessity of picking up the ribs—but I still tried to use only the tips of my fingers, and pulled back my lips as far as possible to keep them clean.
After the first bite, I realized that I was never going to finish my dinner that way, so I dug in with gusto. My lips burned with spice, and I could feel the fatty meat and astringent sauce commingling on my tongue. So what if there was some sauce on my face and hands? When I freed myself of strict social limitations, the food actually tasted better. I even licked my fingers as I reached for the moist towelette, satisfied.
Don’t tell Mrs. Thorson!