Let’s begin not with the meat, but with the smoke. With the fire. Let’s talk ambition: Is it our aim to do the whole thing over hardwood? To cook with charcoal and add wood near the end? Let’s talk about what we’re talking about: How much meat? We need to know: size of fire, size of grill, whether we have to start the night before. What we do not need to ask about: gas grills. In this context, and in almost any other, a gas grill is the gravest of heresies.
Hickory, cherry, apple, oak: smoke. It’s not just heat we’re after. Smoke around the meat, smoke in the meat. Barbecue should taste like what it’s been cooked over. Not only should, gets to. Otherwise, you might as well be cooking pork chops in a skillet. And I don’t want to demean the pork chop. I celebrate the pork chop. But it’s not barbecue.
Your clothes will smell like it. You will smell like it. The smoke settles on your skin and stays there. Your wife will ask you to take a shower. You will do this. When you come back, she’ll ask, “Did you take a shower?”
I’ll cook in all weathers. I prefer inclement. There’s something broken inside me that gets healed by tending a fire in the rain, or, best-case scenario, sleet. In particularly fierce storms, my buddy Terry and I text each other pictures of the weather radar. About time to light the grill, we say. Often, the other one already has.
The smoke drifts in one direction. Then it doesn’t.
I had a dog. Maddie. She would wake from a dead sleep for only two things: the sound of the cork in the Scotch bottle, and the word fire. She was half-Collie and half-Carolina dog and also half-coyote, and a good percentage of something else, too, and she would come outside with me every time, lie down on the sidewalk, cross her paws in front, and watch while I’d build the fire. You want a companion for a moment like that. A friend. Before you light the fire, you’re not cooking. You’re just marinating. That dog lived to be 17. She ate a piece of everything I ever cooked on any of the grills I owned during her life.
There’s this idea that barbecue needs to be cooked low and slow and at a constant temperature. There are ways to achieve the constant part: Become expert, gain access to a brick pit, use a grill with a lid. But none of that seems as exciting as the open cinder-block pit, stair-tread steel mesh riding atop it, weighed down by more cinder blocks, a feeder fire on one end making coals you can shovel on down to the other end. We did my friend J.B.’s wedding this way, a dozen dry-rubbed shoulders over charcoal and wood chunks — not chips — that we pulled from a five-gallon soaker bucket. We started at 4 in the morning. I remember flagons of coffee. I remember lighting that first match in the dark. I remember fussing and tending those shoulders for the better part of the next 10 hours. I remember smelling the smoke in my beard while we stood there and witnessed J.B. and Kathryn make promises to each other that they would mostly keep. I remember thinking: This. This is what a wedding ought to look like. The smoke from the end of that fire drifted through the tent during the ceremony.
The fire is the art part of all of this. Big fire, pour-a-beer- on-it fire, is what you get if you’re not paying attention.
You need a spray bottle — to put out hot spots, to bring the burn back down to a slow burn, to incite smoke. You shovel the coals back and forth; if you’re playing the home game, you push the fire around the bottom of the grill, adding, subtracting. There’s a fine line between messing with the fire and messing with the fire too much. That line’s in a different place every time. The fire is the art part of all of this. Fire — big fire, pour-a-beer-on-it fire — is what you get if you’re not paying attention. Smoke is what you get if you’re doing it right.
I have used a chop saw outfitted with a finishing blade to cut oak into six-inch pieces. I have used lengths of apple from a row of ill-advised trees I planted in my first backyard. I have used wood chips soaked in a Pyrex dish. You come to know how hot a fire is by how rapidly the smoke issues from your kettle grill, or by the color of the coals down in the corner of the pit. The smoke is what you smell first — not the meat. The meat you might smell up close. The smoke, though, you can smell from half a block away. Or from the parking lot of an honest barbecue restaurant. Get out of your car and don’t smell smoke? Get back in and leave.
Smoke may be the only thing that unites the great diasporic argument of barbecue. Elsewhere, we find deeply entrenched factions: slaw, sauce, to sandwich or not to sandwich. To fight about smoke, though? To say it’s not needed? To point to the ease of the oven? To make mention of (dare I even say it) a Crock-Pot? You may be able to get pork to pull by other means, friends, but only where there is smoke is there barbecue.
And then there is the question of the pig. I’ve had beef ribs in Memphis; I’ve eaten brisket somewhere near Texas on a road trip long ago; I enjoy few things more than chickens roasted over huge trough fires at fire department fund-raisers. None of that, though, is barbecue. Barbecue is what’s made in North Carolina, and what’s made in North Carolina is pig. Some folks want to bicker about whether this pig ought to be a chopped whole hog or a pulled shoulder. To them, I say: I can settle this without a great deal of trouble. Bring me a startling quantity of each. I’ll get back to you shortly.
Nobody cooks barbecue for one, and everybody’s got a secret recipe. It’s a feast meal. It takes all day. And you want help. You want somebody over your shoulder, backseat-driving, telling you, gently, that you’re doing it wrong. You want the one side a little burned because you left it down too long; perfection’s not what we’re after. Or: Perfection is the imperfect pig. The burned bits — the bark, the brown, whatever you call it, depending upon where in this fine state you’re standing — they matter. Everything matters.
It’s not a pretty plate. It’s a pile of meat. Yet there’s no better meal. Not a Thanksgiving turkey, not a standing rib roast, not your aunt’s homemade lasagna. It’s the true comfort food of an entire region, and North Carolina either invented or perfected it — or both.
Close your eyes: You can hear the cleavers on the chopping blocks. I’m thinking of a tiny church benefit, an annual affair for which the signs pop up in late fall on my daily drive from Greensboro to Elon. Bethel BBQ, the hand-painted signs say, Bethel Presbyterian. McLeansville, NC. Built in 1812. In the churchyard: a tent. Some long tables propped up on their own legs, or, occasionally on a Rubbermaid trash can. Trailered grills. Bags of charcoal, stacks of cordwood. The shoulders coming off the fire, the men wearing jeans and boots and sweatshirts and thick rubber gloves, the older boys standing in rows behind, watching. The clop of knife on wood. The barbecue accruing in aluminum pans the size of stop signs. Six bucks for kids. Ten for grown-ups. However much per pound for second and third and fifth helpings, to-go.
Plenty of history about how all of this started: whole hogs Down East before we got refrigeration totally figured out, shoulders once it was possible not to cook the whole hog. Introduction of the pig to the South by Spanish conquistadors and then again by colonial settlers. The flourishing of swine both feral and domestic in Carolina forests that would support no cattle. The roasting of the meat until it’s ready; the learning, over generations, what “ready” means.
We can draw a kind of line from a community feast day to tents set up outside the courthouse to the cinder-block stand by the side of the road to Bethel Presbyterian to my buddy Adam’s backyard. I want to believe I cook the finest barbecue of anybody I know; everybody who cooks barbecue wants to believe that. But Adam cooks the finest barbecue of anyone I know. That first bite: the marbled meat falling apart, the sauce and smoke just underneath. It’s a party, and Adam’s house fills with people; he asks the true believers, gathered around the grill, how it is. He knows the answer, of course. Anybody who’s done it right knows the answer. It’s the best we’ve ever had, we tell him.
In the beginning, one wants to say, was the pig. And the pig was good.
Done right, it’s always the best you’ve ever had. The only bad barbecue is wrong barbecue, oversauced or dried-out or cooked in any kind of slipshod, modern manner. And even then it’s pretty good.
But the perfect barbecue? It’s that which is in front of you, maybe on a sandwich but ideally not. Just a plate of pork done almost how you’d do it if it were yours, maybe chopped a little too fine or not fine enough, but still plenty tender — the hours of care, the years of expertise, right there in every bite. A kind of sacred language attaches itself to the discussion of barbecue. In the beginning, one wants to say, was the pig, and the pig was good. And then one wants to stop talking and start eating.
Perhaps before it’s anything else, barbecue is an argument. I mean, other than the pig question. And the question of whether it can be cooked in any kind of proximity to a gas flame. Those are not arguments. Those are catechisms. But sauce? Sauce is a solid way to pick a fight. It’s not long before somebody gets called a name.
And here’s where it all comes apart. The distinction between chopped hog and pulled shoulder is, finally, a not-terribly-meaningful one, and it’s one that doesn’t involve as distinct a geographical boundary as this whole farcical — yep, you read right — tomato vs. vinegar donnybrook. I see you out there, people. I see your T-shirts and your flags and your barbecue maps with their east/west battle lines drawn, as though, somehow, in the hills what they’re up to is a kind of grocery-store sugarfest, and down in the flats they’re just hot-saucing straight vinegar and glugging that into the pile. I see all that.
Look, y’all: I like a good rivalry. But this isn’t basketball. Or coleslaw. How about this as a modest proposal: Let’s not sauce the meat before it comes out — or let’s not sauce it very heavily. Let’s trust in what we’ve cooked. Maybe we add just a little vinegar, just a little salt and pepper. And then let’s let folks sauce their own. There’s room on the plate for both. It makes for a better fight, anyway: Then you can have competing bites, as opposed to competing ideologies.
There’d even be a little room for some mustard-based sauce this way. Which I actually like quite a bit. Who’s the heretic now?
It’s me. If you’re scoring at home, I’m the heretic.
You want to know the best sauce I’ve ever had? Shall we settle this once and for all? It’s Jim Clark’s sauce. Jim runs the writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and he makes two things: writers and barbecue. His sauce rides all day in a thrift-store saucepan on one edge of the grill. Into the saucepan goes — prepare ye for this — about half tomato-based sauce, and about half vinegar-based sauce. And 16 other secret things, 10 of which I’ve seen but won’t divulge.
Let’s quit right there, at that sauce, which was the first food either of my infant sons ever tasted. If we’re going out, then let’s go find a swivel stool, belly up to the counter, order ourselves a plate. If we’re working from home, then let’s turn up the radio, crack open a cold one, and go check the fire. Let’s put out a couple of kinds of sauce. Let’s bring west and east together. Let’s at least bring them to the same table. So long as it’s barbecue, then, no matter the fault line, I’m pretty sure we can agree, in the very best of ways, to disagree.
Sides? I’m not thinking about sides. I’m thinking about standing in the kitchen late at night, picking edge pieces from a smoky foil package, and chewing pure porcine gold by the pale blue light of the preset coffee maker. What else might I require?
So, all right. We can’t move forward without slaw. Slaw makes the barbecue sandwich, but I’ll also hold that a chopped plate is incomplete without it. It’s the backup band. The piano player. It’s the crisp against which the sultry is played. And like everything else attendant to barbecue, there are sects: the crowd that supports vinegar-based, and those who prefer slaw made with, as my mother-in-law says, “that slop mayonnaise.”
I favor a rather highfalutin version landing on the vinegar side of things, an amalgam of carrot, cabbages, and green pepper tossed with cider vinegar, honey, celery seed, and a handful of spices you’d probably like to fight about. The simpler Piedmont slaw, though — plain-old diced red cabbage soaked in vinegar, a slaw that makes your teeth squeak — will do in a pinch.
Slightly, slightly sweet. And lighter than you’d expect. A leaden hush puppy is an item of unmatched sadness. Round is fine, but oblong is preferable — the surface-to-interior ratio is better. Also, you can point at your tablemate with an oblong hush puppy — all the better to punctuate your feelings about the slaw, my dear.
Fine. We can have beans. Baked beans. Not a lot of them, but when, like anything else, they’re not oversauced or overprettied, not made to look or taste like anything they’re not, when they’ve got maybe a little side meat in the pot with them — then we can have baked beans.
You must get hush puppies. You cannot get fries. If your kids get fries, however, you may steal from them when they are not looking. Steal the crispy ones. The burnt ones. The kids are not yet old enough to know the difference.
Absent hush puppies, you may move this well up the list. A joint serving both hush puppies and cornbread may not be totally sure what it’s up to.
Much of the above assumes the BBQ shack, the roadside restaurant, the laminated menu, the sandwich in its white wax paper, the banana pudding, the cobbler — but none of the above refers, necessarily, to the home cook. If you are doing this at home, then all bets are off. Now, we might sing of corn on the cob, in the husk; of pasta salad with some magical olive situation happening within it; of roasted green beans with, perhaps, cantaloupe; of the plate of brownies everyone is pretending they’re not eating alongside dinner, instead of after. We might sing of all sorts of things. But let’s be honest: That last bite you’re going back for? The piece you snag on your way back to the kitchen to put down your plate? It’s barbecue, every time.