There aren’t many cities, towns, or crossroads in the South that don’t have some sort of purveyor of smoked meats in one form or another selling their wares by the pound or in three-compartment styrofoam boxes accompanied by sides of baked beans, cole slaw, and a grocery store roll. The range of establishments from which customers purchase their plates of pork range from repurposed snow cone stands with an old oil drum used as a smoker off to the side of its gravel parking lot to hipster brewpubs serving craft beers alongside pulled pork sushi to gas stations serving ribs smoked in a $100,000 stainless steel contraption mounted to a trailer parked around back. Then, there are the chain barbecue restaurants that, for the most part, I don’t consider what they serve to be barbecue.
Anywhere you travel throughout this great country, folks will have some interpretation of what barbecue should be. There are different sauces with different flavor profiles based on foundations of vinegar, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, or even fruit. Different woods and combinations of woods are used including , but not limited to, pecan, oak, apple, peach, or mesquite to impart that smoky essence which is fundamental to true barbecue. Rubs consisting of a combination of 2 to 200 different spices and seasonings are closely held family secrets for many captains of the smoker. There are some areas where beef is more prevalent than pork, and other areas where fish might be the preferred smoky treat.
No matter where I go and no matter what the local barbecue tradition, there is one thing that I look for when seeking out a good barbecue joint. When I pull into the parking lot, I want to see or smell smoke. That is the lowest common denominator of good barbecue. It must be smoked, and I want to taste it in the meat. If I can’t smell it in the air, I’m just going to assume that the establishment is buying preprocessed, smoke-flavored, restaurant supply meat and is warming it in their oven before serving it alongside the beans they plopped straight from the can into a pan on the steam table, the coleslaw dipped from their restaurant supply company’s white plastic bucket, and the fancy napkins displaying their full-color printed logo.
I don’t need there to be 25 things on the menu either. I live in Mississippi, and we aren’t as demanding when it comes to the style of barbecue. We’re pretty open to beef, pork or chicken on our plate, and as such, show me sausage, pulled pork, sliced brisket, burnt ends, ribs, and chicken along with about 4 sides and a couple sauces to choose from. Let me choose a plate with a sandwich, a possible combination of meats along with two sides, or meat by the pound. That’s all I need. I’m sure barbecue spring rolls or barbecue eggs benedict is fantastic, but that’s not part of the true experience. That’s like going to Nobu for a crawfish boil.
American barbecue’s roots are firmly intertwined in the antebellum South’s slave society where undesirable cuts of meat were left for the slaves after the white folks had taken what they wanted from a butchered animal. The slaves learned that cooking the tough, fatty pieces of leftover beef or pork over a low fire for long periods of time produced some pretty tasty charcuterie. Then, we white folks figured out how good the barbecued meat was. So, we crashed the party and POOF!!! All of a sudden, beef brisket jumped to $10/lb in the local Kroger meat case, baby back ribs cost more than a visit to the proctologist, and there are guys welding together $100,000 smokers that actual people that don’t own a restaurant actually buy to convince their buddies that they’re a better pitmaster than they probably are. (For real, white folks… Why can’t we leave anything alone?)
The next time you’re driving through a small town or down a back road in the South, roll down your car window and use your olfactory sense to bird dog your way to a good meal. If you happen upon a shabby building with a Coca-Cola or Bud Light banner advertising BBQ and a stack of firewood beside an old oil drum belching white smoke from its chimney that resembles a redneck truck’s chrome exhaust tip, put on your blinker and tap your brakes. If that shabby building also has a picnic table or two with a gray-haired, halfway drunk guy surrounded by empty, partially crushed Natural Light cans who’s likely the pitmaster, you’ve found the holy grail. Whip your carriage into the parking area and call your mama to tell her where you are, that you won’t be able to make it for dinner, and that if she hasn’t heard from you by the next morning, she should start the search for you under one of the picnic tables beside this establishment. Loosen your belt and get ready to get saucy, because you’re about to check something off your bucket list.