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Southern Barbecue

July 12, 2010


“Please don’t call it grilling,” my friend requested emphatically.

“This separates hard-core barbecue enthusiasts from the uneducated novice. Think of the difference in romantic terms.

“Grilling is a quick, hot fling with a hamburger or a hot dog.

“Barbecuing is a long-term relationship. You have to spend a lot of time rubbing spices into a rack of ribs or a pork shoulder. Then you spend hours over a smoky wood fire. It’s a lot like making love. The real experts take it slow and easy!”

My friend’s description gave me a new appreciation for the fine art of preparing genuine slow-cooked Southern barbecue.

The Spanish first introduced the pig into the Americas and to the American Indians. The Indians, in turn, introduced the Spanish to slow cooking with smoke.

The first colony on the American mainland was in what is now South Carolina. Spanish adventurers were Conquistadores in search of gold. Spanish colonists came later in the early 1500s. They named their colony Santa Helena. It was established in the area that we now call Port Royal in Beaufort County. The colony lasted almost 20 years. In that first American colony Europeans learned to prepare and to eat real barbecue.

The name barbecue derives from the word barabicu found in the language of both the Timucua of Florida and the Taíno people of the Caribbean. The word means sacred fire pit.

Both the word and cooking technique migrated into other languages and cultures. The word barbacoa was absorbed into Spanish, French, and English.

According to Lake E. High, Jr. President, South Carolina Barbecue Association, most Americans do not have a clue about Southern barbecue. He, too, makes a clear distinction between grilled food and genuine barbecue.

 High goes further to explain that many kinds of meat can be barbecued. Barbecued chicken, barbecued beef, barbecued turkey, barbecued mutton, and even barbecued possum are among the possibilities. Don’t even think about the barbecued meat in the novel and movie Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café!

High explains that barbecue as a stand-alone noun can only be used properly to designate pork. Westerners enjoy barbecued beef, but it cannot rightly be referred to as barbecue. It must be called barbecued beef. To use barbecue  as a noun can only mean pork.

Lewis Grizzard, the late columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had open heart surgery to replace a coronary valve. The surgeon inserted a valve from a pig’s heart.

“Doesn’t it bother you to think that you have a pig’s valve in your heart?” Grizzard was asked.

“Not really,” he said, “but every time I drive past a barbecue place, my eyes water.”

Grizzard must have shed many a tear in his travels across the South.

Barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-q, BBQ: there are as many spellings as there are kinds of barbecue.  Purists insist that genuine barbecue be cooked in an open pit or a wood or charcoal smoker. They are adamant that no lighter fluid or foil ever be a part of the barbecue process.

Lake High, a certified barbecue judge, says there are four varieties distinguished by the type of sauce. South Carolina is home to all four. All Southern barbecue falls into one of these four categories: vinegar, mustard, light tomato, heavy red.

Slaves brought with them from the Caribbean a taste for red peppers. In the Southern colonies barbecue sauce became part of the cuisine when spices and peppers were combined with vinegar. In eastern North Carolina pork seasoned with vinegar and peppers is a favorite.

When we visit my brother Bill and his wife Wanda, we enjoy a barbecue plate at B’s Barbecue in Greenville, North Carolina. B serves fine vinegar-based pulled pork.

The Scottish families who settled the Lowcountry were the South Carolinians who used vinegar and pepper barbecue sauce. Scottish families who continue the tradition include the names Brown, McCabe, McKenzie, and Scott.

German immigrants settled in the Midlands of South Carolina, especially in the Dutch Fork area. Those families received land grants on the Broad, Congaree, Saluda, and Santee  Rivers. They brought with them their Lutheran faith and their taste for mustard, which soon found its way into barbecue sauce. Bessinger, Hite, Kiser, Lever, Meyer, Price, Shealy, Sikes, Sweatman, Wise, and Zeigler are among the mustard-based barbecue businesses.

The third type of sauce is light tomato sauce made from vinegar and pepper with tomato ketchup added. It is the sauce famous in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Lexington, North Carolina, is the acknowledged center for light tomato sauce. It is also popular in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina.

The fourth variety is heavy red sauce featured by the Beacon Drive-In. Its popularity has spread throughout the nation because of the insatiable sweet tooth of the modern American. Heavy red is featured at Neely’s Barbecue in Memphis, Tennessee.

When it comes to barbecue, most Southerners have an impassioned preference. Joe Crook, owner of Pig Out in Spartanburg County, offers his customers both a mustard-based and a tomato-based sauce.

Maurice Pace has a large homemade wood-burning cooker. On holidays he fires it up with split oak and hickory logs.

Last November he issued an invitation. “Why don’t you come down the day before Thanksgiving, and we’ll smoke a few turkeys and barbecue some ribs?”

“I have a problem smoking turkeys,” I said.

“What’s the problem?”

“I can’t figure out which end to light!”

Kirk H. Neely
 © July 2010

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