With all the talk of the paleo diets floating around, I can’t help but think that primal food was simple. Using primitive tools and minimal seasoning, meat was a delicacy that stood on its own, with no help from any fancy flavorings.
Fortunately, we’ve evolved our culinary world with the rest of our living, and we are no longer confined to roast squirrel a la mode. Fancy Parisian cream sauces, complex Italian seafood pastas and ornate Belgian desserts show the refinement and sophistication of our species’ need to feed.
Yet in all of this, there’s a romance that’s lost with the simplicity of food and fire. A piece of meat roasting over an open flame seems natural, and somewhat lost in the frilly norms of highbrow cuisine.
I’m happy to report that it is not gone completely, and that many Americans find solace in their primal roots. Barbecue is an American tradition, one of our most delicious and least explored. Contrary to popular belief, the regional differences in BBQ are strict and competitive.
I’ve taken the liberty of walking you through them.
Texas BBQ is the minimalist of all of our subjects. They believe that the meat is sacred, and trifling with too many sauces or rubs is sacrilege. The meat does the talking, and when it’s cooked right, boy does it. Beef reigns king in Texas cuisine, and BBQ is no exception. Beef brisket with all its slow-smoked goodness is a convincing argument that everything really is better in Texas. Sides are an afterthought here, as they take away from the meat. With brisket this good, I don’t have much room to argue.
The Carolinas are split in their philosophies about serving up pork. They can agree that whole hog (roasting the pig whole) is the best way to cook pork, and that vinegar makes the best base for a sauce, but that’s about all that they can agree on.
North Carolina finds itself steeped in the chili-vinegar tradition. An apple cider vinegar with brown sugar and red pepper flakes is used to marinate the pig, and then served up on the side of ribs, pulled pork, occasionally brisket. You’ll find pigs slow-roasted in smokers for upward of 10 hours, letting all the marinade and smoke flood the pork, and eventually your palette.
South Carolina differs from its Yankee neighbors. Vinegar is important, but true pork is served best with quality BBQ mustard. The marinade is similar to N.C., but they wouldn’t dream of putting a purely vinegar sauce on the side of their chipped (pulled extra fine) pork. This delicacy calls for a sweet and hot mustard, accompanied with a side of coleslaw. Put the pork, slaw and mustard on a bun, and you’ve got sandwich worth seceding for.
Kansas City BBQ is much different than its eastern counterparts. When thinking about KC food, remember this one rule: The sauce is the boss. Rich tomato sauce, vinegar, molasses and a good deal of sugar make up the base for this sticky sacrament. Underneath the masterpiece you’ll find a rack of slow-smoked ribs, beef or pork, depending on your preference. The stereotypical messy BBQ rib zeitgeist is embodied in Kansas City.
Many BBQ experts would stop there in their education, but there are many more regions to explore across the USA. I lived in Georgia and Alabama for a bit, and I’m happy to report that they are just as fit as the celebrities.
The Southern Belt (Louisiana through the Florida Panhandle) is famous for creole and plantation cooking, but not for their BBQ. This is a tragedy. In few other places do you get to see Cajun and old Southern cooking happily married on a grill. Chicken is much more popular here than elsewhere in the country, and its BBQ shows it. Marinated and smoked, the chicken is roasted whole, and then served as is, or pulled apart. The sauces are unique as well, leaning on the Carolina vinegar and mustard, but incorporating fruits. One of the best sauces I ever had was a Georgia peach–Vidalia onion BBQ sauce in Ackworth, Ga. It goes to show that thinking outside the box serves you deliciously well.
Along with the chicken come the Cajun sausage and red beans and rice. Together, it provides an unconventional smoky experience.
BBQ is a natural part of spring and summer. Break outside your hamburger/hot dog rut and connect with your primal roots. You’ll be happy you did.