What is barbecue? Well that’s a complicated question so I’ll start with who the hell I am and why the hell you would want to know what I have to say.
Living in Memphis, your entire calendar revolves around the month of May. There literally are activities scheduled from the first weekend to last. Starting with a three day world class music festival and ending with a sunset symphony Memorial Day weekend. There in the middle is the World Barbecue Cooking Contest. It’s the Memphis version of Mardi Gras, Carnival, The Super Bowl, March Madness, The World Cup and the world’s biggest version of BBQ Pitmasters. If you live in Memphis you’re either on a team or you know someone that is. Teams come from literally all over the world to compete.
For almost 20 years I’ve been on the same local team. For the last 17 years, I’ve been a cook on the team. The first few years, we were all in our mid to late 20s and were most interested in drinking and eating and more drinking. In 2000 the team let me turn a sauce in at Memphis In May and it took 2nd place. It was our first trophy, and while at the time we were too drunk to even know what we’d won; it changed our team. No longer was this something we just wanted to do for fun, we wanted to compete and we wanted to win. I started making sauce for the team that year, and by the next year I was the teams rib cook. We started to figure things out through trial and error and to be honest a whole lot of losing. The next few years we started dialing in our techniques and flavors on the Memphis Barbecue Network circuit competing in local contests all over the region. In 2005 we took 1st Place in Pork Shoulder at Memphis In May. We won another world championship in Shoulder in 2008 and again in 2009 where we were also named the Memphis in May Grand Champion, not just the best in our category but the best of all categories. We won for Shoulder and Grand Champion again in 2013. Since our first Memphis In May win in 2005 we’ve finished in the top 3 seven times.
What IS barbecue?
Well, technically it’s slow cooking large, tough, usually cheap cuts of meat over long periods of time using charcoal and/or wood usually (but not exclusively) indirectly. But come on, you could look that up on Wikipedia and get that definition. What IS barbecue really? It’s tradition. It’s Southern. It’s Texas. It’s the Mississippi Delta. It’s the Carolina’s. It’s big famous restaurants you see on TV. It’s the small cinder-block building on some back road only the locals know about. It’s father teaching child a family recipe passed down from his father. It’s $20,000 cooking rigs. It’s cheap, shitty backyard grills. It’s high culinary art. It’s simple comfort food. It’s regional. It’s celebration. It’s dedication. It’s patience. It’s gluttony. It’s culture. It’s lifestyle. It’s religion.
It’s some of these things to some people. It’s all of these things to me. But the truth…the thing the “experts” won’t tell you is there is no ONE way to do barbecue. There are very few hard truths. You hear the arguments like: sauce or no sauce, beef or pork, sweet or hot or tart, foil or no foil, with slaw or without. The list of disagreements is a mile long, but what nobody will truly tell you is that they are all right and they are all wrong. You see BBQ is about location and tradition. What are the proteins that were available? What are the flavors typical to this small or large area of the country. What could the poor afford and how would they make it taste good? It’s all kind of similar, but all gloriously different. I have gotten into some pretty heated arguments on social media with a few famous celebrity chefs when they spout off “rules of BBQ” given to them by a celebrity BBQ chef that only really applies to one particular region of the country. I will try and make the argument for regionality; that what might be true in Georgia isn’t necessarily true in Mississippi. And of course I always finish my argument by hashtagging it #FourTimeWorldChampion. That usually shuts them up. Usually.
You see as long as you are slow cooking large cuts of meat through natural means (fire from wood or charcoal or both) you are essentially barbecuing. Spices, bastes, woods and sauces are all regionally different much like pasta sauces in Italy. What you are cooking on doesn’t matter. A cinder-block pit with an iron grate on top is just as good as the most expensive Ole Hickory professional smoker. The key, the secret ingredient is the person cooking it. The knowledge, the years of practice, the traditions passed down…that’s what makes it barbecue.
So what ISN’T barbecue?
This is the fun part, for me at least because I get to vent those things that drive dedicated BBQ cooks to drink. Actually it’s not very hard to get a BBQ cook to drink. So lets just say it’s the things that drive us crazy.
First and foremost. Hamburgers and hot dogs are not barbecue and you aren’t barbecuing them. They are grilling. Period. I don’t give two flying shits if you are cooking them on a thing called a barbecue grill or at an event you call a backyard barbecue. It’s not barbecue. If you cook it fast it isn’t barbecue and even if you pour barbecue sauce on it (I’m looking at you boneless chicken breast) it’s still not barbecue. It may be barbecue flavored, but then again so is a damn potato chip. But that’s still not barbecue. If waiting for your fire to get hot enough takes longer than cooking the meat….you are NOT barbecuing. Ever. Please stop calling it that. It’s getting glamour shots at the photographer in your local Wal-mart super center and saying you’re a model. It’s just sad.
Short cuts are not barbecue. Parboiling (a word that immediately makes me nauseated), starting in an oven and finishing on a grill, or cooking with gas, even a modern technique like sous vide (one of my latest online arguments): not barbecue. It may simulate the textures and flavors, but it isn’t barbecue. Barbecue is never something fast, it’s about slowly turning something tough into something wonderfully succulent. It may be delicious, but it isn’t barbecue. It’s like calling ceviche sushi. Both are pretty much raw fish, but they are not the same thing.
And this is more of a personal complaint of mine: please world, please for the love of all that is holy stop calling it Que. I hate that term with the flames of a thousand Backwoods Smokers. You don’t boil toes…..you boil potatoes. You don’t cut loupe….you cut cantaloupe. So please, I don’t cook que….I cook barbecue or barbeque or BBQ. And I love it.
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