Know what’s a noun, verb, meat, method, social event, and source of heated opinions greater than those spurred by any political party? If you guessed “barbecue”, you got it right! In the South, barbecue is practically a religion.
Here in the Carolinas, just to be clear, barbecue is pork. Slow smoked meat, pulled or chopped, and served with or without a bun, most likely with slaw.
I spent my early years in Tennessee, and barbecue was an adjective attached to grilled chicken with sauce. It wasn’t until I lived in the Carolinas, shortly after college, that I was introduced to the pork phenomenon in the form of a “pig pickin’,” which happened to serve as a wedding reception for one of my friends.
At the reception, one of the groomsmen was hovering over a smoking oil drum, which he’d converted into a grill. As he lifted the top of this grill, I saw that it was loaded with meat. Sizzling, succulent, mouth-watering Boston butts. Thus began my love affair with Carolina barbecue, and the groomsman who later became my husband.
Since moving to the Carolinas, I’ve sampled many styles of barbecue. I’ve dined at dives and BBQ chains, purchased pulled pork from the Pig Palace on Wheels parked at a gas station, and attended and feasted at barbecue festivals.
Once, I almost bought a barbecue sandwich at a bowling alley. I asked the girl at the concession stand, “How’s the barbecue?”
“Well,” she said, “It’s not the best thing on the menu.”
“What’s better?” I asked.
I don’t know what I was thinking. Barbecue at a bowling alley? They have no smoker. Proper barbecue takes commitment. Hours of slow roasting, begun before the crack of dawn. Fire and danger. It cannot be produced on a griddle or microwave found in a typical bowling alley concession stand.
In fact, some argue that the best barbecue is found off the beaten path. When I lived in North Carolina, some of my co-workers and I would venture to remote locations far and wide to find those BBQ joints with gravel parking lots, tattered booths, smoke billowing up from somewhere out back, and a name like “Snooks Barbecue.” If the place had a “B” rating from the health department, man, we knew it was gonna be good.
One of my co-workers would always order his ‘cue “Outside chunky brown,” which means some of the crispy skin portions would be mixed in with the tender pulled pork. Health food this was not.
One of the great debates about barbecue is whether to cook the whole hog, shoulders, or butts. But that debate pales when it comes to discussions about the sauce. “The secret’s in the sauce,” said Sipsey in “Fried Green Tomatoes.” And oftentimes, the sauce is a closely guarded secret in itself. I know of one man who keeps his sauce recipe in a sealed envelope, only to be opened upon his death. Some people are dang crazy about their sauce.
Probably the most basic sauce (called “dip” in some regions) for smoked pork is some mixture of vinegar, salt, pepper, and butter, used to baste the meat while cooking. This style dominates the Eastern Carolina region. Lexington-style, originating in North Carolina, adds a little tomato paste or ketchup to sweeten the vinegar base. In South Carolina, the area surrounding Columbia and headed towards the coast is known as the “Mustard Belt,” where yellow mustard is mixed in with the vinegar and various spices. Thousands of variations exist with peppers, apple juice, molasses, or those elusive secret ingredients.
As barbecue has become more popular, many restaurants serve a variety of sauces “on the side,” so everyone can choose their favorite style. Q2U in Lake Wylie has its roots in a backyard competition barbecue team. Their original vinegar-based sauce has won a number of awards and was even named the official sauce of the Democratic National Convention when it was held in Charlotte. Q2U also offers a hotter version of the sauce, plus a tomato based “Thick and Sweet Sauce” and a Mustard sauce.
Whatever the style, if you walk out of a barbecue restaurant without a few stains on your shirt, you need to go back in and eat some more.