As a competition barbecue pitmaster and co-owner of Lawdawg BBQ, I am often asked “what is good barbecue”? The next question that usually comes up is “where can I get good barbecue”? There is as much of a debate about what barbecue is as there is on how to cook it and how it should be served.
Many people believe that barbecue derived from “barbacoa”, a West Indian term which denotes a method of slow-cooking meat over hot coals. The Oxford English dictionary traces the word back to Haiti, and others claim (somewhat implausibly) that “barbecue” actually comes from the French phrase “barbe a queue”, meaning from head to tail. Proponents of this theory point to the whole hog cooking method used by some barbecue pitmasters. The most convincing explanation is that the method of roasting meat over powdery coals was picked up from indigenous peoples in the colonial period, and that “barbacoa” became “barbecue”.
In the northern United States, barbecue is a verb, because barbecue is cooked at a higher temperature on a grill. It is a method known in barbecue as “hot and fast”. In the south, however, barbecue is most definitely a noun. The meat is cooked at a lower temperature and for a longer period of time, a method that is called “low and slow”. Cooking your meat “low and slow” allows the protein in the meat to break down, resulting in tremendous tenderness and taste.
So, as you can see, there is a difference of opinion on the origins of barbecue, how it is cooked, and even how it is spelled. Often times you will find it spelled “barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-que and even shorter versions of ‘cue, ‘que, and bbq”. Barbecue, throughout history has always been known as a non class-specific food, one that could be enjoyed by the rich or the poor.
It is often said that barbecue originated in the old southern slave plantations and that plantation owners regularly held pig pickin’s for the slaves. They have also been featured at church picnics, private parties, and political rallies.
In the south, barbecue is pork. In Kentucky, it can mean beef or mutton. If you are in Texas, it will be beef. One thing is for sure, barbecue is a southern cultural icon. Few people can argue that in the south. For those in the north, they seem content on grilling hamburgers and hotdogs. The preparation of barbecue is time consuming and relatively inexpensive, but it is a classic southern staple. Whether it is served pulled, chopped, or sliced and if it is served plain or with vinegar, mustard or tomato based sauce, there will always be a long running debate on what is barbecue. One thing all critics can agree on, it is delicious.
So, what is the secret of good barbecue? Most people will disagree over how it is prepared, or how it is cooked. One thing that remains consistent is that most pitmasters will not reveal all of their secrets. Some cook it with dry rubs and serve it with sauce, some without sauce. Some cook it over mesquite, oak, hickory, or any of the fruit woods. What can I tell you about how I prepare my barbecue? It is given a generous dry rub of spices and allowed to sit at room temperature to allow the spices to begin permeating the meat. The spices begin to break down the protein of the meat, which allows the meat to absorb the spices. I then fire up my pit to an optimum temperature of two hundred and twenty five degrees. I use a combination of charcoal and a fruit wood, usually either peach or apple, which will produce a sweet, smoky flavor in the meat. I then place the meat on the smoker and begin cooking for anywhere from three to twelve hours depending on which cut of meat I am cooking.
We have covered the debated history of the origins of barbecue, and how it is prepared. But, to answer the question of what is good barbecue, well, that is a question that will be debated as far and wide as the history. With barbecue, you have different regions that bring different things. You have Memphis, TN that claims to be the barbecue king. Then, you have Kansas City, MO that claims to be the barbecue king. You will get different answers about good barbecue in both locations.
The best answer that I can provide you about what is good barbecue. Find any restaurant across the country that dots the map. You are guaranteed to find out a lot about Americana and the tradition of the “joint”, the history of the pitmaster or family that started that particular restaurant. As a certified Kansas City Barbecue Society judge, I can tell you this: no one can tell you what good barbecue is. That is up to the taste of each individual person. But, I can tell you that this topic has been one of great debate for many years.