The Religious Tradition Of Barbecue



May is National Barbecue Month. This would be reason enough to celebrate the entire month, but, of course, May also contains Mother's Day, Memorial Day, Cinco de Mayo, and a wide variety of lesser-known special days such as "No Socks Day" and "Clean up your Room Day." It's true -- check it out.

But the subject of this column is barbecue -- that wonderful invention which transforms mere cooked meat into a transcendental experience. Pure, unadulterated barbecue is perhaps man's greatest achievement in cooking, and deserves a place among the Nobel awards.

We are, of course, speaking of classic barbecue, the mother of all barbecue and the high standard to which anything using the name aspires -- Southern Barbecued Pork, slowly smoked -- gently cooked over coals of hickory wood until the meat can be pulled from the bone by a baby's fingers. The exterior will be a lightly charred crunchy delicacy, while the interior will attain a slight pinkish/grayish tint and be as moist as a lover's tears. When separated, it will release a steamy aromatic amalgam of aged hickory and sweet pork -- a perfect synthesis in which neither ingredient dominates. On the side -- never on the cooking meat -- there will be a small container offering the coronation of a sweet, tomato paste and molasses sauce suggesting a touch of black pepper and a secret ingredient: celery? garlic? nutmeg? clove?

The official attendants to this succulent sublimity will always be coleslaw and potato salad. The slaw will be finely minced and slightly vinegary sweet, containing a touch of baby carrots and a hint of onion. The potato salad will have minced onion, celery and a fine-tuned mixture of mustard and mayonnaise. Corn bread (real stone-ground corn bread, not the sweet cake version) will be available with slabs of real butter, and sweet iced tea with lemon will always be the drink of choice. Apple or peach cobbler (possibly with vanilla ice cream) should accompany the feast in the same manner that a winged creature adorns the hood of a Rolls Royce -- not absolutely necessary but a classy touch. This may sound like a simple meal, but only those completing years of apprenticeship and trusted with the secret initiation are allowed near the ritual of preparing the meat.

Like some other mainstream religions, there are branches of different thinkers about barbecue, which have evolved over the years. Goat, bison and cow are some of the other meats occasionally offered to the unsuspecting as "barbecue." I admit to sampling them myself and agreeing that they each have a certain appeal in their own way. Goat, in particular, has a distant historical relationship and gets a quiet nod from purists for its unique sweet flavor.

Beef, bison, roadrunner or javelina are pretenders. OK, beef is acceptable, especially brisket, but it remains in a special category. In most instances, beef is quick-cooked (grilled) and served with industrial sauces like A-1 or Worcestershire. Beef ribs are for gnawing, not gently sucking like baby back ribs. You are never offered "pulled" beef.

I love grilled tenderloin or a Porterhouse as well as anyone, but I don't confuse them with barbecue.

The very word, barbecue is generally accepted to have originated in the Caribbean. Most etymologists believe that it derives ultimately from the word barbicu found in the language of the Taino people of the Caribbean. It is also spelled barbicoa -- barabicoa. The word translates as sacred fire pit and, growing up in the Deep South (Georgia), I can attest to the reverence given to that translation.

In the high temple of preparing barbecue in that region, a hole is dug in the ground about three feet deep and five feet long. Split hickory logs are set afire in the pit and allowed to burn for hours resulting in a thick bed of hot coals. Dirt is shoveled over the coals and a whole pig (usually halved and wrapped in moist burlap) is placed atop the warm earth. The pit is then completely covered with the remaining dirt. A minimum of eight to 10 hours is allowed for the sweet hickory steam to fully cook the pig. A highly skilled person is chosen to cut up the meat, and the prized portions are the hams (rear legs). This gave rise to the saying, "eating high on the hog."

More often, selected pork cuts (ribs, hams, shoulders) are placed in a smoker or in a smaller grill with a closed top and allowed to slow cook and smoke over a number of hours. In both instances, it is usually a day-long process attended by a dedicated individual or group. It is not unusual for libations to be present on these occasions, and a true social camaraderie develops.

No doubt, at one of these gatherings, a suggestion was made to create a national month of recognition honoring the tradition. More than likely, there were congressmen and senators present.

Who says Congress never gets anything done?

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