Not long ago, good Southern barbecue was a rare find in New Orleans. A slice of meat drenched in barbecue sauce was about the closest you could get.
Shortly before the turn of the 21st century, a few cooks with Kentucky-Tennessee-North Carolina backgrounds opened a couple of joints with smoke pouring out of the chimneys most of the day and night, and a taste for slow-smoked ribs, pulled pork and chicken began to tempt the Cajun-Creole palate.
Things really started smoking when a small group of guys smoked a hog raised a few thousand dollars for a little boy with brain cancer. Today, the New Orleans restaurant scene has its fair share of great barbecue, and Hogs for the Cause has raised more than $5 million for the treatment of pediatric brain cancer and aid to patients and their families.
On March 27-28, the event referred to affectionately as “Hogs” will lure crowds of locals and visitors to the UNO Lakefront with the smell of smoking meat cooked by competing teams from all over the country.
One such cook is James Cruse, who began barbecuing ribs 22 years ago in his backyard in Arabi. Now he heads up “Aporkalypse Now,” a team that has won numerous grand championships at Hogs. The team renamed itself Central City BBQ this year because Cruse has become the restaurant’s pit master.
Last year, it won first place in the ribs category. His key: doneness and texture. He has no recipe except that they are smoked at 250 degrees from three to six hours, depending on the cut.
“The key is fire management,” he said. And the texture “should be smooth and moist, a soft bite.”
Another local team, “Mr. Pigglesworth,” also sprouted from backyard cooks who heard about Hogs and went on to collect some top awards. They, too, say it’s all about time and temperature.
“You can’t rush it to get it to come out right,” said Antony Spizale, one of the team’s chief cooks. “When you understand the concept of controlling the heat and time of cooking, barbecuing is easy.” When he’s in his own backyard in Kenner, he sets the heat on his Weber at 225 degrees to smoke pork shoulder and spends as many as nine hours getting the meat just right, checking the temperature every hour, then controlling it with vents.
The following recipe is based on many tips from Cruse and Spizale with my own experience thrown in. After all, I am a Tennessee native.
Barbecued Pork Ribs
3 racks St. Louis-style pork ribs
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
3 cups ketchup
1 cup cider vinegar
½ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/3 cup Steen’s cane syrup
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 small onion, chopped
For the grill:
1 small bag hickory chips, soaked in water for 1 hour
1 medium bag charcoal briquettes
2 cups water
½ cup white vinegar
1. Remove membrane from back side of ribs, running a knife beneath the rib edge and using paper towels to pull off. (Demonstrations can be found on-line.)
2. Make dry rub by mixing all ingredients in a small bowl. An hour or two before putting on the grill, rub ribs liberally on both sides with dry rub.
3. Make barbecue sauce by combining all ingredients in a medium sauce pan and simmering for 1 hour, covered,
over low heat.
4. Soak about half the hickory chips in water for 1 hour before charcoal fire is ready. Soak more later, if needed. In a spray bottle, mix water and white vinegar.
5. Heat a large charcoal fire in the bottom of a barbecue grill with a cover and vents. When white-hot, spread in a large area on one side of the grill. Top with several handfuls of drained hickory chips. Place grill 5 to 7 inches above charcoal and lay ribs on the opposite side of the grill from the fire. Adjust vents to channel the smoke over the meat for indirect heat. Smoke for 1 hour.
6. Open grill and spray ribs with water-vinegar mixture. Turn ribs over and around, spray again and spread a handful or two of new charcoal evenly over the hot coals and top with more chips. Keep grill closed for 1 more hour and repeat the spraying, turning of ribs and addition of charcoal and hickory. Grill will fluctuate in temperature when you open it but should maintain an average temperature of 250 to 300 degrees throughout. After another hour, repeat process.
7. When ribs have smoked for 3 ½ hours, open grill and apply a thin layer of barbecue to each side of ribs, using a brush. Cover and smoke for 30 minutes.
8. At the end of 4 hours, ribs should be tender but firm enough not to fall off the bones. Slice and serve after a 10-minute rest, or remove from grill, wrap in heavy foil and keep in warm oven, 200 degrees or less, for up to an hour. Slice ribs apart and serve on a platter with sauce on the side. Serves 10 to 12.
Admission to Hogs for the Cause is $30 for one day or $55 for two days March 27-28 at the UNO Lakefront with three stages of music and booths selling barbecued ribs, pork shoulder, whole hog and porkpourri (anything pork-centric) cooked by fundraising teams from all over the country. For more information, contact Hogsforthecause.org.