If, as is often assumed, New York City is the catalyst for trends that sweep across the nation, then we’re all about to be awash in pulled pork, melt-off-the-bone ribs, smoked brisket, coleslaw and cornbread. The Big Apple has gone nuts for Big Pig.
Just look at a sampling of the Southern-style barbecue joints that have opened across the city over the past couple of years: the buzz-generating RUB (Righteous Urban Barbecue) in Chelsea; Dinosaur in Harlem; the former Queens landmark Pearson’s, now incongruously wood-smoking the air of the Upper East Side; Daisy May’s in Midtown; Bone Lick Park in the Village; Biscuit and Jake’s in Brooklyn; and the suddenly venerable, four-year-old Blue Smoke, to name but a few. At this rate, being barbecue literate will soon be as much a gastronomical imperative as knowing your sushi and recognizing Mario Batali’s knees.
Fortunately, even with all its regional permutations, understanding barbecue is not as difficult as it may seem. Essentially, it all boils down to meat, technique and sauce. For city folk who flatter themselves that they set the trends, I offer this ‘cue-torial from traditions nurtured in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kansas City and the Carolinas.
But first, let’s get one issue quickly out of the way. Real, Southern-style barbecue has little to do with the burgers, chops and hot dogs you slap on your Weber every Fourth of July. This barbecue is typically cooked over wood rather than gas. Food is not placed so much over the fuel as beside it, indirect heat being the key to the long, slow cooking times barbecue requires. And the cooking generally takes place in a pit or smoker, rather than on the grill, although it may very well finish there, mopped with a healthy amount of tangy, red barbecue sauce.
Any good sojourn along the Barbecue Belt begins in Texas, the proverbial black sheep of the barbecue world. Why? Because in Texas and only in Texas, beef reigns over pork at the barbecue pit, as it does, admittedly, in most other facets of Texan culinary life. Visit places like Angelo’s in Fort Worth or the Gonzalez Food Market due south of Austin and you’ll be offered tender, well-smoked brisket and Flintstones-sized beef ribs, sometimes called Texas ribs, likely as much because of their size as their local appeal. Further east, towards Houston, pork receives more pride of place on the menu, but that brisket never quite cedes its primacy.
Wherever you are in Texas, there will be plenty of red barbecue sauce provided, generally a little sweeter and tomato-y than the ones you’ll find as you push along the Belt, and almost certainly spicy hot. To drink, you’ll likely be offered Shiner Bock, a local legend of a lager that combines a mild, quenching body with light notes of toffee and a faint wisp of smokiness. In-house, that will likely be your best choice, but if you get your beef to go, try finding a more robust accompaniment, like St. Arnold Brewing’s malty-hoppy Brown Ale, from Houston. Another great option is the well-rounded, decidedly vanilla-accented Bourbon whiskey Rebel Yell, watered to just over half its original strength and served with a cube or two of ice.
From Texas, head northeast into Arkansas toward Little Rock and you’ll see smiling pigs start to show up on barbecue signs, a sure signal that pork is first and foremost on the menu. (More than one wag has commented on how curious it is that these cartoon pigs seem so happy about being barbecued and eaten.) Because Arkansas is in many ways the crossroads of American barbecue, though, you’re also likely to see influences from other regions all across the state, from beef briskets in the west to chicken in the south—a nod to the proximity of Louisiana—to sauces that sometimes seem to be an amalgam of all the Belt’s regional variations. In most places, however, you can count on being offered the Arkansas standard sandwich of smoked pork shoulder, chopped or sliced rather than pulled, topped with signature vinegary coleslaw and served on white bread.
Beer is again the beverage of choice for Arkansas ‘cue, and if you’re lucky it will be the lightly raisiny, moderately bitter Pale Ale or sweeter Irish Red from Little Rock’s Diamond Bear Brewing. If you’re especially fortunate, however, you just might be able to find an off-dry hard cider like Woodchuck Dark & Dry to enjoy as the perfect foil for the pork’s succulent smokiness, and the tang of sauce and coleslaw.
Another melting pot of barbecue is Kansas City, and nowhere is it better represented than at the legendary Arthur
With the kind of robust flavors normally found in KC barbecue, a Manhattan, served on the rocks and any way but bone dry, is a worthy accompaniment. Another fine option would be a roasty, full-bodied black ale like the Bully! Porter from Kansas City’s own Boulevard Brewing.
Move back south to Tennessee and you’ll find that music isn’t the only thing dished up in Memphis. Not far from the legendary Beale Street, where generations of blues and rock musicians have cut their chops, stands another legend of great significance, Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous.
The Rendezvous is not only Memphis’, and arguably Tennessee’s, most famous barbecue restaurant, it is also the most contentious. In fact, there are those who will argue that it’s not even barbecue at all, because the legendary ribs are fired over a charcoal grill rather than gently smoked, and served utterly sauceless, sprinkled instead with a healthy amount of the iconic Rendezvous seasoning.
Regardless of the controversy, however, two facts about the Rendezvous are generally accepted: It gave birth to the Memphis “dry rub” style of barbecue, in which sauce is abandoned or its use scaled back in favor of a mix of herbs and spices applied directly to the meat before or after cooking; and the restaurant’s ribs are delicious. Add a glass of dryly malty lager like Brooklyn Lager or the fuller-bodied Penn Märzen from Pittsburgh—neither available at the Rendezvous, sadly—or a tumbler of good Bourbon softened with just a splash of cola, and you have yourself something approximating nirvana.
Your final sojourn through the Barbecue Belt should bring you up through the Carolinas, where you’ll encounter curious mustard-based sauces in the South and the fiercest rivalry in barbecue in the North.
To the barbecue tourist, the differences between sauces in eastern North Carolina and western North Carolina may be negligible, or even pass unnoticed, but to North Carolinians, they are paramount. Both are vinegar-based sauces, but Lexington or western N.C. sauce is tinged red with tomato, and shows the resulting sweetness in its taste, while eastern N.C. sauce is pure vinegar and pepper, with other seasonings occasionally thrown in.
One thing east and west North Carolinians can agree on is the pleasure of an old-fashioned pig picking. This is the barbecue of choice throughout the Carolinas, in which the whole hog is smoked for hours and served up with plenty of white bread—the staple of all barbecue—and assorted side dishes. A slightly strong, slightly sweet German-style bock such as Carolina Brewing’s Spring Bock would be a nice accompaniment, but a moderately hoppy lager such as Samuel Adams Boston Lager would do in a pinch, as would a glass of hard cider or the cocktail known far and wide as America’s original, the Sazerac.
Mix all ingredients and store in a tightly covered container. Keeps indefinitely. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.
4 teaspoons butter
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, melt butter and cook onions and garlic until soft and fragrant. Add remaining ingredients and stir until blended. Transfer to food processor and blend until smooth. Return to pot and adjust seasonings if necessary.
Makes approximately 4 cups of sauce. Will keep refrigerated for up to two weeks.
Blue Smoke’s Devilled Eggs
10 hard-boiled eggs
Gently crack the shells of the hard-boiled eggs and peel under cool running water. Cut a small sliver off of each end of each egg, so that it will sit flat on a plate, and slice in half lengthwise. Remove the firm yolk, setting the whites aside. Blend the yolks in a food processor until smooth. Add remaining ingredients and blend until thoroughly mixed. Pipe or spoon mixture into egg white “cups” and refrigerate until served. Makes 20 devilled eggs.
RUB’s Creamy Cole Slaw
In a mixing bowl, combine all the dressing ingredients. In a separate, large salad bowl, combine all the slaw ingredients and stir in the dressing until well combined. Refrigerate until served. Makes enough “for a crowd.”
Be sure to read the Online companion for this article, which includes several of the regional sauces mentioned in this article.
Stephen Beaumont traveled the Barbecue Belt in 2003 and hopes to do it again soon.