Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Barbecue in the South

Life is too short to let it pass without eating barbecue. Of course, if you eat too much barbecue, you won't live as long - but that's another story.

First of all, some definition of terms. Be forewarned that I'm going to do something that I usually avoid: embrace my regional prejudices. This post is concerned with barbecue as it's found in the southeastern United States: that group of states starting in eastern Louisiana (western Louisiana might as well be Texas) and forming a crescent around to Virginia. Down here we believe that:

"Barbecue" is a noun, not a verb. The practice of cooking meat outdoors on a grill is "grilling," not "barbecuing."

With all due respect to my friends in Texas and Kansas City, beef is not barbecue.

Barbecue is pork slow-cooked over hickory wood and served with sauce on it. It's that simple. But something about the interaction of pork, hickory smoke, and sauce results in a dish that's more than the sum of its parts.

The sauce is sometimes applied during the cooking process, but most often added just before eating. It can be tomato-, vinegar-, or mustard-based. I've always been partial to barbecue sauce that uses tomato as its base, but as I get older, I find that I'm enjoying vinegar-based sauces quite a bit.

To me, an indispensable accompaniment to barbecue is brunswick stew - a sometimes mysterious concoction which usually contains pork, chicken, tomatoes, corn, and occasionally other vegetables. Brunswick stew is not universal throughout the South, though; in South Carolina and eastern Georgia they put together something they call barbecue hash instead of brunswick stew. I've been told not to ask what's in it. And one night, in a barbecue joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I had to explain brunswick stew to the waitress; she had never heard of it. I told her that we always ate it with our barbecue in Georgia and described the ingredients. She thought it sounded pretty good. At that point I broke off our conversation, grabbed my newspaper, and smashed a cockroach that was crawling across my table. I still enjoyed the barbecue.

There are stylistic differences in barbecue in different parts of the South. Some places favor using the leaner cuts of pork; some use fattier parts of the pig, for more flavor. In North Carolina, the sauce tends to be vinegar-based; in South Carolina they favor mustard-based sauce. Alabama and Mississippi seem pretty firmly in the tomato-based sauce camp. In Memphis there are places where you have to specify that you don't want slaw on your sandwich; it's considered a given. In north Georgia, the brunswick stew tends to be composed mostly of finely-chopped meat. As you travel further south, the stew contains more vegetables. There are differences between eastern and western North Carolina barbecue that seem to be mostly technical in nature; they will concern the cook, but not the person sitting at the table. It's been said that Georgia can't make up its mind what it wants its barbecue to be. That's pretty much true - you'll find all sorts of sauces and stews in the state.

The best barbecue is found in the shabby little restaurants throughout the South, often out in the middle of nowhere or in run-down neighborhoods in the cities and towns. An ugly cinder block building is a good sign, as are uncertain business hours and a very limited menu. I will drive (and I'm not alone in this) miles out of my way to eat at a good barbecue joint, and I always try to make barbecue part of my agenda when I'm traveling through the South.

Yesterday I ate at my favorite Georgia barbecue joint - Old Clinton Barbecue, about fifteen miles northeast of Macon. Naming Old Clinton as my favorite is somewhat arbitrary, given the competition. Fresh Air Barbecue in Jackson is usually considered to serve up the best 'cue in Georgia. Sprayberry's in Newnan is excellent, and Dean's in Jonesboro has a lot to recommend it. Harold's, on the south side of Atlanta, is usually very good - about once every 15 visits you may get an unpleasantly fatty serving of pork. My favorite brunswick stew can be had at the Georgia Pig, which is in Brunswick, fittingly enough. Fincher's in Macon, Sconyer's in Augusta, and Vandy's in Statesboro are are all worth a drive to visit. One of my favorite meals was about 15 years ago, at Richardson's Barbecue in tiny Iron City, in the southwestern corner of the state. They had a jukebox which reflected the rural population of the area perfectly - it was half-filled with country records and half-filled with blues. I kept ordering more food and feeding quarters into the jukebox - blues records for me, thank you. I revisited Richardson's about two years ago; the barbecue was still excellent, but the jukebox was gone.

But Old Clinton Barbecue.... It's odd - the sauce is not very good when sampled by itself; it's salty, thin, vinegary. But by some alchemy, it enhances the excellent smoked pork perfectly. The ladies behind the counter also know just how much sauce to ladle onto the sandwiches; I tried putting a little extra sauce on the last quarter of mine, and it destroyed the perfection. I only visit Old Clinton once a year. Between visits, I sometimes wonder if the barbecue is really as good as I remember. And it always is.


kenny said...

One of life's great puzzles: What the hell's up with New Orleans and barbecue? Is there just too much else going on? I remember having a few good-but-not-great meals at a place called, I think, Tipton County. On Magazine St maybe? Other than that, zip!

Jeff Crompton said...

Yeah, New Orleans has that Creole thing going on, so barbecue is not a priority. And they don't have hickory wood around there!

Tonight I drove 45 minutes south of Atlanta to eat barbecue at Sprayberry's - a chopped pork sandwich, brunswick stew, and excellent onion rings. I'm a happy boy.