Written by Roger Mccredie | Photos by Anthony Harden
Here’s how articles like this actually get written: I was minding my own business when the phone rang. It was Oby Morgan, the publisher of this magazine. “How Southern are you?” he asked. “Seriously?”
“Well, let’s see…my mother’s people came to Jamestown in 1607. My dad’s ancestors got off the boat from Scotland in time to enlist in the Confederate Army. When I was in college some other fools and I stuck the Stars and Bars on top of the Pawley’s Island water tower at four in the morning—” “Okay,” said Oby.
“—I spent two years as Chief of Heritage Defense of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and seven years as executive director of the Southern Legal Resource Center—” “Yeah, but—”
“—I got my first rifle when I was eleven. I eat hoppin’ John on New Year’s, and I know the difference between good and bad sweet tea, and I know you can substitute chicken for squirrel in Brunswick stew, but it’s just not the same—”
“Okay, okay, that’s where I’m headed. I just wanted to see if you were competent to do an article on barbecue.”
The misgiving in my voice must have been evident because Oby wanted to know why I, the prototypical Southerner, seemed less than tickled at the chance to write about an iconic region’s most iconic food. I did something very risky for any writer who has just been handed, on a silver platter, an unsolicited assignment that pays good money: I expressed reservations about it. “I don’t want to write ‘The Barbecue Story,’” I said. “One, I’m not a food critic. Two, every Southern periodical on God’s green earth publishes ‘The Barbecue Article’ at least once a year, and they all say the same thing. They’re set pieces. They get all gushy about ingredients and cooking method. Sometimes they mumble something about barbecue being a part of Southern culture, but they don’t say why or how—”
“I know. That’s why I want you to be the one to write the article.”
★ ★ ★ BARBECUE MAKES UP ONE OF THE FOUR BASIC SOUTHERN FOOD GROUPS, along with fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, and banana pudding. But unlike the other three, which are merely foods, barbecue is a concept, entire of itself, fleshed out by its very own history, folklore and mores. In that respect, it occupies the same position in Southern culture as moonshine whiskey, over which it has the consumer advantage of being legal: you can walk in and order a plate of barbecue; you don’t have to knock on a strange door or arrange a meeting with somebody you’ve never met who will signal you with a blink of his lights on a dark country road.
Remember that “barbecue” is both a verb and a noun. It refers to the actual cooking process as well as the end product of that process. There are many theories as to the origin of the term. One of the most original (if not particularly academic) was cited by Southern scholar S. Jonathan Bass in 1999. Bass alleged to have heard tell of an ad for an establishment that was a combination beer and liquor joint, pool hall and purveyor of roasted pig, which called itself the “Bar-Beer-Cue-Pig.” Now, it’s entirely possible that there was/is such an establishment, but if so, its name is a latter-day witticism along the same lines as the alleged sign at the roadside café/filling station, “Eat Here and Get Gas.” More plausible is the theory that the word derives from the French phrase barbe a queue—“head [lit: “beard”] to tail.”
A preponderance of evidence suggests that the single word “barbecue’” describing the method of slow-roasting a pig over white-hot coals, originated “among indigenous peoples” of the Caribbean, specifically Haiti. Since Haiti has a centuries-old affiliation with France, it’s entirely possible that the Haitian word for the process, barbacoa, is a dialectical version of the French phrase, used to describe a much older method of cooking. Anyhow, “barbecue” (yes, the modern spelling) made it into no less a scholarly work than Samuel Johnson’s 1756 dictionary as both a verb and a noun. (“A method for dressing a whole hog/ a hog dressed whole”).
“Barbecue” would have made a pretty exotic entry in Johnson’s work. English nobility weren’t crowding the sun dappled lawns of Downton Abbey of a summer’s afternoon, swilling champagne and inhaling the appetizing aroma of roasting pig while liveried footmen passed the hushpuppies. Howbeit (as they said in those days) that’s exactly what was happening in certain of His Majestie’s Southern American colonies, where “barbecue” as a noun had taken on a further meaning as a social gathering centered around ye cooking and eating of roasted meat.
And thus informed, dear reader, we arrive (finally) at the crux of this whole matter, which is how barbecue—noun and verb, has come to be associated almost exclusively with the American South.
As we have seen, the South did not invent barbecue any more than Scotland invented the bagpipe. Roasting meat over a pit is almost as old as fire, and using a bellows-like sack to power a flute was a technique known in ancient Babylon. But it was in the South, as in Scotland, that the idea came to be perfected. Both concepts involve a certain amount of incidental squealing before the desired result can be obtained, but whereas Scots’ bagpipes evolved after centuries of imitation, innovation and tinkering, Southern barbecue’s emergence as a cultural icon was largely due to the fortuitous introduction of a single factor:
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This is probably the place to introduce an important disclaimer, before the Capital at Play offices are stormed by an angry mob of Texans and Kentuckians hollering, “Remember the Alamo!”, “Go Wildcats!” or whatever seems appropriate to them. As we have seen, “barbecue” refers to a method of cooking as well as to what is cooked. You can barbecue just about any meat; them ol’ indigenous peoples of the West Indies, who gave us the word to begin with, mostly used goats. Hence Texans, who claim to have more or less singlehandedly invented cattle, tend to barbecue beef, and it is true that beef brisket cooked in this manner is delicious. The denizens of parts of Kentucky are partial, for reasons known only to themselves, to mutton. But the highest and best application of the barbecuer’s art remains—as it has before the first longhorn steer hit the Old Chisholm Trail or Daniel Boone had bushwhacked through Cumberland Gap—reserved for pig. Hogs. Swine.
Fossil evidence suggests that pig-like creatures have been around for 40 million years, give or take. Domesticated pigs were being raised for food in China by 5000bc (concomitant with the rise of sweet and sour sauce) and were established as livestock in Europe by 1500bc, by which time European woods were also full of the pig’s ferocious cousin, the wild boar. Queen Isabella insisted that Columbus take eight pigs with him to the new world. Why Her Most Catholic Majesty made this request is not known, but she was paying for the trip so the pigs went. Their eventual fate is likewise uncertain. What is certain is that a few years later Hernando DeSoto carried 13 pigs with him to what is now Tampa. The Spanish swine (as well as the pigs) thrived; in fact the Native Americans of that area found pig meat such a tasty novelty that they actually raided local pigpens, whooping, shooting arrows and crying, “Extra sauce and hold the slaw!” Many of DeSoto’s pigs escaped into the wild, becoming the ancestors of the feral pigs that inhabit Southern woodlands to this day.
Eventually Tampa Bay and other Caribbean area ports became regular stops for seafaring robbers. These pirates had brought with them the barbacoa meat-cooking technique they had picked up, along with just about everything else, while scouring the islands. Their word for the cooking apparatus they used was boucan and the merry thieves who employed it were nicknamed boucaniers, hence “buccaneer.”
Not everybody in the new world was as enthusiastic about hog meat. In the eighteenth century, William Byrd, in his History of the Dividing Line Betwixt North Carolina and Virginia, sneered, “…these people [North Carolinians] live so much upon swine’s flesh that it don’t only incline them to the yaws, and consequently to the…[loss] of their noses, but makes them likewise extremely hoggish in their temper, and many of them seem to grunt rather than speak in their ordinary conversation.” If Byrd, an inveterate bookworm, had kept abreast of things instead of trying to keep his wife from messing about in his library, he would have noticed that not a single case of yaws was ever directly connected to eating pork, so there.
The point is, hogs and the raising of them flourished in the South from early on. Hogs were low maintenance, they multiplied like rabbits, and they could be turned loose in the woods to forage for themselves and be caught later for butchering. In fact, hog killing became a community event and the roasting of a pig or two for such gatherings gave rise to the third definition of “barbecue”—as a social occasion. Roasting a whole pig was a cheap way to entertain, and the pig meat went even further if it was pulled apart. Thus, it was a short step from hog-killin’ get-togethers to political rallies, church fund-raisers, and debutante parties where the honorees squealed, “Ewww! Grease on my dress!” Nor were such events limited to goings-on up at the big house. The love of barbecue, then as now, cut across all class and racial lines. By the outbreak of the War Between the States, Southerners were eating five pounds of pork for every pound of other meat. (Lord knows, there was little enough of it to eat for a long time afterwards.)
Cookery being the ever-evolving science that it is, the popularity of the pig also launched the invention of sauces—for seasoning at time of serving only; true barbecue meat may be rubbed with dry ingredients before cooking but is never basted. The makeup of these sauces was based on availability of ingredients and personal taste, and recipes were not only seldom written down but often varied from one application to another. Oral tradition and copycatting carried the framework of some recipes around a given district, which explains the predominance of vinegar-and-pepper sauce in Eastern North Carolina, the same framework with the addition of tomatoes and stock further west, and yellow mustard-based sauce in parts of South Carolina and Georgia.
And somewhere along the line, it occurred to some entrepreneurial farmer that he could make a little extra money doing barbecue. He already had the pigs; he had, probably in his head, a recipe of sorts for a sauce; he had firewood and a shovel. So he went down to a part of his property near the big road, dug himself a pit, and thus was born…
The Barbecue Joint
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The farmer would have needed a counter of sorts, probably a plank or an old door across two sawhorses, and if trade proved good enough, it would have eventually occurred to him to throw together some plywood and corrugated tin to make a semi-enclosed shack. Eventually there would have been a little building—not much more than a shed, but with a plank or even concrete floor and a few stools. The missus may have contributed sweet tea to wash the pig meat down with. As business picked up and what had been a sideline was taking more and more of his time, the farmer may have contracted with his daughter to run the place and his waste-of-space son-in-law to tend the fire.
Word spreads. Somebody else opens a barbecue stand and adds hush puppies. In a nation increasingly mobile and looking for on-the-go food, sandwiches become king of the road and somebody promptly figures out that pulled or shredded barbecue can be served right on a bun…and a whole new restaurant genre is born. When restaurants across the country ratcheted service to the car-loving public up a notch by introducing the drive-in, the barbecue joints kept pace by adding parking lots and curb hops.
Which is fine in its way, but barbecue consumed in the car can be a dicey proposition for clothes and upholstery, and take-out barbecue doesn’t travel well. There are few things less appetizing than a Styrofoam plate of tepid barbecue in a puddle of congealing sauce. Nor is jump-starting it via microwave effective. When the freshness is gone, it’s gone. The finest barbecue is that which is still warm from the hog’s carcass, consumed in a place with worn wooden floors and at least one calendar on the wall, and freshly doused with house sauce. (Forget the arbitrary sectional differences; it’s all good.)
“We serve five different sauces at our place,” says Jackie (Mrs. Phil) Garrison of Phil’s Barbecue Pit in Black Mountain, North Carolina. “Phil’s folks are from here, but he and I were both raised in Alabama. Down there they like a kind of thick, sweet, tomato-based sauce. We kept that recipe when we opened here [in 2007] but we knew lots of folks around here like vinegar-and-pepper sauce, and these days you’ve got people coming in from all over and they all want the kind of sauce they’re used to. So we’ve got white sauce, which has a mayonnaise and vinegar base, and mustard sauce, and our house sauce, which is a mixture of things and a secret. It’s all homemade, though, right here,” she says. Which is only right and proper; in fact, anything not homemade, introduced into the manufacture or consumption of barbecue, is an abomination unto the Lord.
Even in foodie-capital-of-the-western-world Asheville, where the same block may house Indian, French provincial and fusion food establishments, barbecue holds its own. Little Pigs BBQ, strategically located across from Asheville High, has been a local fixture for half a century. Two newcomers, Luella’s and 12 Bones (the latter claiming the distinction of having been visited by Asheville tourist Barack Obama) stay packed—and mostly by a younger crowd. “For a while there,” one Asheville lady executive who eats out a lot said, “everything looked like it was going vegan. Now there’s been this sea change. A lot of people my age want authentic local food, and barbecue is about as authentic as it comes.” The Squeelin’ Pig is certainly that, with their smokin’ trailer towed up on Merrimon Avenue near Weaverville between Wednesday and Sunday. A local landscaper and patron said, “If you get there after 1pm, the ribs are aren’t.
So how is it that handmade barbecue, the quintessential regional cuisine, has been able not merely to survive but thrive in the South, withstanding the onslaught of fast food and chain theme restaurants? And why, for that matter, has it never gained the same kind of hold in other parts of the country?
Well, for one thing, barbecuing, from pig to table, is not an easy process. It requires extensive preparation time as well as the stamina and willingness to stand over intense heat for hours, maintaining coals and checking cooking progress. The necessary time and patience to produce good barbecue is not considered cost efficient in—um—less discerning parts of the country.
But there is another reason, even more basic than its inherent tastiness, why barbecue in all its forms and variants, is virtually a Southern sacrament. It’s because, to Southerners, it speaks of…
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In The Mind of the South, W. J. Cash called Dixie “not quite a nation within a nation but the next thing to it.” Certainly the South has been a place unto itself since America’s beginnings, its different-ness shaped first by climate and geographical isolation and later by the internal bond of having lost America’s only home-grown war, plus the destruction and deprivation that resulted therefrom. (It was not fighting the War Between the States but losing it that created the “Solid South.”) Southerners, another writer said, “have a tendency to cherish those aspects of the South that defy the traditions of the rest of the United States,” and this rugged individualism is expressed eloquently in its foodways.
But a gentler, bedrock reason why barbecue is so dear to the Southern heart is simply that it speaks of home. Southerners have what Florence King calls “a granite sense of self” that is rooted in history, place and family. Barbecue partakes of all these things. If there is such a thing as a food being able to stand for, to speak for, an entire people, that food is barbecue, Southern identity in edible form.
Whether four o’clock in the morning occurs in the cold pitch-blackness of midwinter or in the pearly predawn light of high summer, that’s about the time of day when, all across the South, an army of unsung saints called “pit men” go forth to stoke the hardwood fires that, when they become white-hot coals, will receive the meat which hours and hours later will be transformed into barbecue. Which was and is and ever shall be. Amen.
What good is a Pig
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Baked for Sunday or ceremonial dinners, cooked with an infinite number of glazes and served with countless sauces. Or covered with black pepper, smoked and hung in a smokehouse, kitchen or sometimes a bedroom for years until it attains the proper greenish glow.
Proletarian delicacy regrettably seldom found any more except in old side street bars or country roadhouses where what you think is sawdust on the floor is actually yesterday’s furniture. You’ll find them in a large, squat glass jar between the pickled eggs and the Slim Jims. Immortalized in the old Memphis blues, “Gimme a pig’s foot and a bottle of beer.” ‘Nuff said.
Not BBQ material, but a staff of life. Superb accompaniment for everything from eggs to peanut butter. Primary ingredient of BLT’s and Hoppin’ John.
BACK FAT (or fatback):
Incomparable source of seasoning for beans and greens of all types.
Source of pork chops and pork roast. It’s possible to barbecue, but you have to be careful—there’s little protective fat so it’s easy to overcook.
The holy grail of barbecue cuts, they are cooked and usually served as an intact rack. Particularly suitable for “dry rubbing” with black & cayenne pepper, garlic and whatever else. Not known why they’re called “spare”—the pig would probably have definite feelings about that…
What you do to a mess of barbecue, beans, coleslaw, and hush puppies.
Neither a butt nor unique to Boston, which only shows that some people don’t know their butts from a hog on the ground. However, it’s one of the prime barbecue cuts, along with…
PICNIC (aka Pork Shoulder):
preferred joint of many BBQ joints.
used for seasoning and occasionally deep fried. Frequently represented by snooty yankee media as a staple of Southern diet.