In Pursuit of Real Barbecue
Memories: in this case, an afternoon as a kid when our family was invited to someone’s backyard for a barbecue. Backyards were a big deal back then, as the suburbs expanded and new houses were built featuring spots of green in the back. A thing to do in the backyard was to have a barbecue, though few really knew how to do it.
In this particular case, the yard chef lathered barbecue sauce over pieces of chicken which were placed on a grill that was way too close to the fire in the belly of the pit. The proximity of the sauce to the flame was so near that the sauce caught fire giving our meal a charred black coating. Pass the potato salad please.
Away from the yard and into the restaurants, New Orleans developed slowly as a town for barbecue. There was a place called The Smokehouse that featured chicken cooked on a rotisserie and coated with sauce, though not at a flammable level. For the most part, though, our distinctive cuisine has been Creole, Cajun and generously from the sea.
There are few culinary categories in which Texas ranks over Louisiana, but barbecue is one. I once took a barbecue tour of Houston where we were guided to several stops. Real barbecue is not something flamed on a grill, rather it is cooked slowly surrounded by a heat that is gentle but commanding. The cooking time should be measured in hours not minutes.
All of the barbecue we were served that day in Houston was either pork or beef. Later in the day we were lectured by a published barbecue expert. He guffawed when I asked him about chicken. I was, after all, speaking heresy. Chicken, he explained, is not suitable for real barbecue because it is such a light meat. It literally cannot stand the heat. I thought about the generations of backyard barbecues with their menus built on folly.
For our cover story we commissioned an experienced food writer to, over a few months, explore the town and report on the best barbecue. The good news is that we are no longer a smoky backwater. There are local places that can go arm to arm with the big boys in Texas. They are discoveries worth trying. And if you must have sauce, put it on after the cooking and not during.