Barbeque: A Personal Voyage
Posted on March 11th, 2011
Some years ago, whilst working for a New York based ad agency, I was part of a team that pitched a potential client in Atlanta. No one on the team had spent much time in The South™, and we all suffered from more than a little culture shock. Sure, we all spoke English, but the dialect spoken on our side of the conference table was completely different from the one spoken on theirs. I’m not just talking about different accents, either, though their drawls were considerable. Our very manner of communicating was different. While our speech was quick, polished and aggressive, theirs was slow, friendly and maddeningly sincere. While we name-dropped and quoted fancy statistics, they espoused folk wisdom and drew strange analogies. At one point, while discussing potential target customers for their business, someone on the Southern side of the table said something like, “Well, we sure do want to dance with the prettiest girl, but we also want to dance with all the girls.” Everyone on the Southern side of the table nodded in agreement while we Northerners scratched our heads.
The meeting was generally amicable, but it became clear almost immediately that our vast cultural differences would make working together nearly impossible. Our common humanity did eventually surface, however, as noon grew near and everyone was hungry.
It was decided that lunch would be ordered, but what manner of food we would eat needed to be determined. One of the Southerners piped up.
“Anybody want barbeque?” he asked. Not wanting to sound impolite to a potential client, we all instinctively responded in the affirmative, despite the fact that not one of us knew what “barbeque” meant when used as a noun.
A phone call was placed, and twenty or thirty minutes later a pimply-faced teenage boy wearing a red hat with a cartoon pig on it arrived, laden with brown paper bags. They were set down on the table and a series of white Styrofoam boxes were taken out of them and placed before us. As the lids popped open, the most incredible smell filled the room. It was sweet, spicy, and smoky. My northern colleagues still looked somewhat perplexed as cheap white hamburger rolls were distributed, but I no longer cared. I was in barbeque Rome, and damn it, I was going to do as the barbeque Romans did, especially when the barbeque Romans had delicious-smelling pork.
I watched as the natives put a healthy forkful of shredded pork on the buns they had laid open in front of them, then put a forkful of coleslaw on top of that (So that’s what coleslaw was for!) and then a spoonful of something they called “barbeque sauce” that looked like a watery mustard to the untrained eye of a Northerner. I did as they did, and as I raised the sandwich to my face, beams of light shone down from heaven. I took my first bite, and choirs of angels began to sing. (That’s how I remember it, anyway. The details are fuzzy.) I dripped all manner of juices down the front of my expensive dress shirt, utterly ruining it. I couldn’t have cared less, though. At once I knew how Paul Atreides must have felt the first time he consumed The Spice Melange. In my mind I was the Kwisatz Barbequach; the Pork’Dib. I suddenly knew the ways of these people as if born to them. There was my life before that moment, and my life after that moment, and those were two different things.
Up until that point in my life, I had no special interest in cooking. Upon my return to New York, however, I was determined to recreate what I later learned was called a pulled-pork barbeque sandwich. Cursory research yielded that pulled pork was generally made from pork shoulder, which is often sold in the north as “Boston Butt.” I procured one from my local butcher, placed it in my Crock Pot early one morning, and let it cook all day. When I came home, it was wonderfully tender, but lacking the magic that I had experienced on Arrak…I mean in Atlanta. Having no idea what to do next, I “pulled” it with a pair of forks, smothered it in a bottle of tomato-based “barbeque sauce” and returned it to the crock pot for an hour. The result was something not entirely bad, per se, but certainly not what I was looking for. Disheartened, I wouldn’t really attempt to make pulled pork again for a long time.
Several years later, I moved from New York to Portland, Oregon, where I discovered that many of the apartments are free-standing and have a ring of grass around them. After some research, I determined that these “yards” could be used for the preparation of meats, particularly if one had the proper fire containment apparatus. While said apparatus is in no way a requirement (we’ve collectively gone without them for the majority of human history) building a fire in the driveway is generally frowned upon by one’s neighbors. I decided I would try my hand at outdoor food preparation, and purchased a charcoal grill.
The grill and the myriad of things one could cook on it became something of an obsession for me. I learned which fuel to use (lump hardwood charcoal, not briquettes), how to properly manage a fire via a balance of fuel position and air flow. I figured out that you could make a fire nearly hot enough to melt iron by pointing a hair dryer at it. I discovered that steaks and burgers were best cooked on a cast iron skillet over a hot fire rather than on the grill grate directly. I began grinding my own beef and pork for burgers and sausages. I even learned a technique for making individual pizzas on the grill. (I will not speak of it here, for in the words of the venerable Alton Brown, “that…is another show.”)
This was all fun and very rewarding, but I wondered if I couldn’t go even further. Could I make my own pulled pork barbeque?
ed: Tune in next week to find out!