Fall is here and with it come two things I love. Football and barbecue. Most every man has a love affair with football, so I'll allow you to banter on amongst yourselves on that topic. I want to focus on something even better and a heck of a lot tastier.
While growing up in the North, a "barbecue" meant throwing some hot dogs and hamburgers on a grill. And this usually happened during summer outings or picnics. So imagine how far my jaw dropped the first time somebody asked me if I wanted "barbecue" here. What I saw was a blackened, 10-pound boulder of meat that looked burnt on the outside and had a strange pink ring on the inside. Was I going to have to add barbecue to pizza and wings on the list of foods I missed from home?
One bite into a blissful slice of wonderfully smoked pork not only awakened my taste buds, but has sent me on a path to sample the best barbecue out there. This time of year when people ask which church I'm attending I tell them whichever one is having their annual barbecue sale. Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, you name it - they have it. It might be sacrilegious to put a pork sandwich next to the communion offering, but I guarantee the first place that does will have my tithes for the foreseeable future.
Sometimes I feel like Bubba from "Forrest Gump" when talking of this love affair. Chopped, sliced, shredded, rubbed, mopped, sopped, shoulder, butt, brisket, rib, red, white, or mustard. These terms roll off the tongue as quickly as the tasty goodness rolls into my gaping maw. But barbecue is more than just food. It is a social event. There are rules. Put ketchup on pork, and you will surely draw some looks and even some stern words from the more vocal enthusiasts. Put mustard sauce on anywhere outside of the Palmetto State, and stares turn into a gag reflex - until they taste it!
There are also protocols. First off, be wary of any barbecue served on china. If it isn't served on a three-way divided Styrofoam plate with the finest plastic utensils available, it isn't right. Second, there are rules on what to wash down the barbecue with. Generally speaking, if you aren't gulping sweet tea, you might as well be eating something different somewhere else. Finally, you have to know what goes where. If a roll is on the table and slaw is offered, you don't put slaw on your plate, you put it on the meat and close it up under the bun. Beans go on the plate. If somebody has to bring your plate to you, you better have a good reason.
Table service is for the meek.
I finally added to my barbecue love five years ago. I bought a smoker of my own. It isn't a fancy device I can lug behind the pick-up truck I don't own. It isn't even a cobbled up 10-gallon drum. It is a simple smoker good enough to do three butts and some ribs at the same time. The best thing about barbecue is the worst stuff you ever had is still pretty good, and as long as you don't pull the meat off raw or undercooked, chances are it will pass the test of most taste buds. I feel like a mad chemist sometimes. I've done coffee rubs, spicy rubs, sweet rubs, smoky rubs, salty rubs and fruity mops. I've done pastes, slathers, injections, brines, and marinades.
There are a lot of ingredients I've used, but there are two constant ones, passion and curiosity. If I want to know how something will taste, I'll make it into a vehicle to go on the barbecue. It may not always work, but there is something almost prehistoric about tending to a smoking fire pit for 12 hours. An inner peace of knowing that a few hunks of wood added to some smoldering coals will cook a slab of meat over a day. And in this age of having things right now, a man can thumb his nose at convention and say, "You want goodness - you'll wait for it." The waiting may be the hardest part, but when the barbecue is finally lifted off the heat, after it has been savagely hacked into serving sizes by a large knife or ripped apart by strong hands, the expectations are fulfilled and you wish every day could allow for such a leisurely pace.
For the next month do yourself a favor. Watch the nights come earlier, witness the trees turning beautiful colors, and take time every Saturday to seek out a barbecue. You'll meet new friends and thank the pit masters for the privilege of breaking bread. Enjoy.