Where do you start when writing about barbecue? Probably with a controversial statement, it would be fitting since pretty much everyone who enjoys the stuff has strong, sometimes borderline-aggressive opinions about what “real” barbecue is. I’ve yet to see someone physically fight over this, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it happened.
When I say the word barbecue, I’m talking about chopped eastern North Carolina-style smoked pork with vinegar sauce. That’s it. I call pulled pork, just that. Pulled pork. When I talk about brisket, I use the word. Chicken? Yep, smoked or grilled chicken. Ribs are ribs. I’m not saying that’s the gospel, but I’m right, at least to me.
Barbecue means something different to pretty much everyone in the world. It’s hyper-regionalized. Americans like to think that we own the word but we don’t. Koreans have their version, and Texans have brisket. Is Peking Duck, slow-cooked in a wood-fired clay oven and smoked with tea leaves, not barbecue? Hell, they were cooking duck this way hundreds if not thousands of years before we American’s tossed some tea in a harbor and told the British to fuck off. Is it not barbecue to dig a pit, wrap seasoned pork in banana leaves, and place it over hot coals, slow cooking for eight hours to make Cochinita Pibil? Vegetables cooked over hot coals, kissed by smoke and flame, barbecue? I’d firmly argue that they are, as David Chang does in his Netflix series Ugly Delicious, and he’s right.
So why does the word barbecue still only mean one thing to me? Take a hit of the peace pipe and get philosophical for a moment. Barbecue, as much as it is one of the oldest cooking techniques in the world, is much more than that. It’s a category of food that carries emotional significance and, through smell, is tied so closely to memories. To say barbecue is just a cooking technique is only half the truth, the other half is a feeling. It’s why everyone is so damn territorial over what it means to them, and I think that’s okay. So very typical of me, I’m 100% right while being 110% wrong.
My earliest memories of barbecue are from when I was very young. My dad had decided to step away from the professional kitchen and enter academia. I found out later in life it was my Nana that encouraged it. She found an article in the paper advertising a job opening at a local high school looking for a Culinary Arts teacher. He jumped, and the rest is history. That High School, one that I would later attend, had a massive annual fundraiser that saw parents and student volunteers get to campus around 2 am to cook 10,000 pounds of Boston Butt over 200 feet of pits in a brick pithouse the school constructed. It was a serious cash cow that saw thousands of people jam up traffic to pick up as much as they could carry home. Almost everyone I know feasted off this stuff year-round, pulling it out of the freezer for quick dinners when friends came to visit.
I vividly remember my dad bringing pounds of it home to pack our freezer, smelling like smoke, making an early dinner, then crashing from pure exhaustion. Once he was in charge, he managed to transform it from bringing good barbecue, to great barbecue. By the time I was old enough to help out they were doing close to 20,000 pounds of Boston Butt. It’s hard to wrap my head around how much pork that is. It’s an insane figure, literally a full tractor trailer full that took a half dozen dump trucks of oak logs to cook. It was glorious. Oak was burnt down to coals in old rusty oil drums, those coals shoveled and spread evenly under pit boxes, throwing up so much smoke that planes landing at Charlotte-Douglas could see it overhead and its smoky sweet smell carried miles away. Not every teacher was cool with you skipping class to help, so after hours of hard labor, it wasn’t surprising to see a student dart off to class dirty as a dog, sweating their balls off, and smelling of smoke, just to try to make it through whatever boring class they were in before running back to the pits to help out. It created a sense of belonging and a lot of pride in pulling it off.
It’s those memories that later inspired me to take control of the fraternity’s entry into a barbecue competition held by my now-wife’s sorority. We had a shitty pig cooker, some spices, a pile of oak logs, a case of Busch Ice, and an abundance of confidence. There was nothing that was going to stop us from winning this thing. The plan was as foolproof as it was elegant. We’d throw a big party to keep the energy up, throw the pork on around midnight, continuing to pound beer while feeding the smoker until it came off between 9:00 and 10:00 AM. We had the pledges lined up to come to clean up and chop the pork while we took a nap, waking by noon to stroll on over to the competition, collect our first-place prize then throw a darty to celebrate.
There were no holes in this plan.
Except for when we went a little too hard at the party, fell asleep on the back deck around 4:00 AM, allowed the smoker to die, and woke up at 7:00 AM to a beautiful sunrise, with a pounding headache and raw pork. After 15 minutes of customarily blaming the pledges for our mistake, one of them had a moment of brilliance. We’d go to the award-winning barbecue spot down the street, buy up 20 pounds of the stuff in bulk, hit it with our sauce, take first place, then continue with the planned celebrations. What we didn’t take into account was ballot box stuffing of the rival fraternities (arguably a more brilliant idea), so we took fourth after submitting one of the best barbecues in the state, and decided there was no reason not to continue with the celebrations anyway.
I’ve since learned to set alarms every few hours when smoking barbecue overnight. Or even better, smoke it the day before you need it. It’s fairly exhausting, you always get dirty, and you need a beer, but it’s never not worth it.
Some Recipes to Get you Started.
Smoking is one of my favorite cooking methods. Unfortunately, I can't have a smoker where I currently live without HOA Karen losing her mind. So recipe development might be slow here but I'll keep this updated as often as I can.