Up in Smoke: the Rise of American Barbecue

by Anna Mowry
Heather Sperling
July 2007

Recipe

Madison Square Park swelled in celebration of one of America’s favorite culinary pastimes at the fifth annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party the weekend of June 9–10. Over a dozen participating cooks from around the country offered samples of the low–and–slow style that smacks of summer, and attendees got a taste of the long history that has shaped this distinctly American tradition. Native Americans cooked some of the earliest barbecue, placing meats on a wooden rack elevated over flames and gently smoking it for an extended period of time. Colonists shaped the food’s development by adding sauces and marinades that they had enjoyed in Europe, such as the German taste for mustard that took root in South Carolina. During the pre–Civil War period, pig butchering led to neighborhood–wide celebrations, the first instances of modern barbecue get-togethers.

Over time, the preferences of America’s settlers bloomed into the far-reaching tastes that unify and define barbecue territories today. Regional pitmasters pride themselves on their authentic preparations, taking time away from their day jobs as IT specialists or teachers to participate in national cook–offs. John Wheeler, a home–builder from Mississippi, enjoys a near celebrity status while traveling through the competition circuit, with fans lavishing him with appreciation typically reserved for chefs who perform on television. He was also recruited to train the kitchen at Rack and Soul, one of New York’s many barbecue outposts that have raised the food to new levels of exposure and success. Midwesterners and Southerners may still spar over the best flavors for sauces and rubs, but everyone can agree that the preparation consists of cooking meat by way of prolonged exposure to smoking wood — though what kind of wood is up for debate. Meat, rub, sauce, wood: varied arrangements of the barbecue quartet create the nuances that separate one rack from another. And while regional variations still exhibit some deeply rooted flavor traditions, today’s chefs aren’t afraid to experiment with tastes and technique.

Memphis

Meat: Mike Mills of 17th St. Bar and Grill in Murphysboro, IL offers a variety of pork cuts: brisket, baby back ribs, and butts.

Rub: Mills rubs his meats with a mixture of fourteen to eighteen spices, including paprika, garlic, sugar, salt, and pepper.

Sauce: In accordance with regional tradition, Mills adds sauce at the end of cooking. Memphis sauces were once strictly vinegar–based, though compositions have become more varied with additions of ketchup, vinegar, sugar, and cayenne pepper to heighten spice and flavor.

Wood: Mills prefers to cook with apple, cherry, or any other available fruit wood, giving his barbecue an underlying smoky sweetness.

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Mississippi:

Meat: John Wheeler, of Rack and Soul in New York, prepares various pork cuts for the party crowd, including whole hogs, ribs, and shoulders, which are most popular in his native state.

Rub: Thirty-one ingredients go into Wheeler’s “Million-Dollar-Rub,” including black and white pepper, Hungarian paprika, dry mustard, and fennel.

Sauce: Michael’s sauce, composed of tomatoes, brown sugar, honey, paprika, coriander, and allspice, shows the Mississippian taste for spicy sweetness.

Wood: While Wheeler reports that Mississippi barbecue commonly uses hickory wood, in competitions he prefers to use cherry or applewood for their softer flavor.

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Texas:

Meat: According to Michael Rodriguez of The Salt Lick Barbecue in Driftwood, TX, beef brisket is big in Texas, with sausage also enjoying some popularity.

Rub: Rodriguez’s dry rub is a secret recipe, but he reveals that traditional Texas rubs contain no brown sugar, offering a spicier, bolder flavor instead.

Sauce: Texas sauces are usually tomato-based, and Rodriguez advises adding them toward the end of cooking, to minimize the burning of the fruit.

Wood: While Texas barbecue commonly cooks over hickory and mesquite woods, Rodriguez recommends oak instead because it imparts a less pungent taste to meats. Both chefs also use flavor-enhancing woods, such as apple wood or pecan chips, to counteract the overly smoky and harsh tastes released by hickory and mesquite.

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South Carolina:

Meat: The preferred cuts of meat in South Carolina barbecue are pork ribs and whole shoulders.

Rub: In addition to rubbing his cuts with a mixture of paprika, garlic powder, oregano, and chili powder, Jimmy Hagood of BlackJack in Charleston also brushes on evaporated cane juice, which carmelizes to a glossy mahogany finish.

Sauce: When it comes to sauces, Hagood explains that the state consists of three discrete flavor regions: the East coast boasts a spicy vinegar sauce; the Northwestern region of Piedmont prepares tomato based sauces; the Midlands enjoys mustard-based sauces, also known as “Carolina Gold.”

Wood: South Carolina cooks take advantage of the plentiful availability of pecan wood; it is a mild wood that doesn’t contribute a smoky aftertaste to meats.

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