Barbecue, Defined by 16 Pitmasters
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Halfway into the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party's panel on South Carolina barbecue on Sunday afternoon, an audience member raised his hand and asked the panelists to name the best barbecue restaurant in New York City.
"It's an exhibition, not a competition. It's diversity. The best barbecue is whatever I'm eating at the time," answered John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and one of three literary heavyweights sitting at that checkered table. He warmly invited the panel and the audience to set aside myth and hype and talk instead about the widespread roots of good food.
"It was amazing to discover the range of barbecue," joined journalist Lolis Eric Elie, referring to his experiences in researching the quintessential barbecue road trip book, Smokestack Lightning. In waxing academic over the sauce stylings of South Carolina, the reverse migration of black Americans into the South and the idea of a national food, the panel—Eli, Edge, and two others, author and editor Jack Hitt and South Carolina pit master Rodney Scott—communicated a deep respect for barbecue's regional underpinnings.
Regional representation was an essential element of the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party and this year, pitmasters from 11 states gather to offer just as many glimpses into what defines barbecue on their home turf. From Ed Mitchell's celebrity-caliber whole hog chopped pork sandwich to Kenny Callaghan's rich and powerful smoked beef rib, the food served to thousands during this event challenged New Yorkers in the most savory way possible to trade in our hungry quest for "the best" for something closer to home.
Thanks to the ever-growing popularity of traditional foods in the United States, many serious eaters know that America has four heralded barbecue "capitals": Memphis, Kansas City, North Carolina (yes, the entire state) and central Texas. Yet, as showcased by the Block Party's invitations to Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi, even this breakdown of regional roots can be overly simplistic.
"Barbecue varies county by county within a single state," affirmed Edge with a nod to South Carolina, which is home not only to a regional specialty called hash but also to three geographically separated strains of barbecue sauce: vinegar, mustard and tomato (hardcore 'cue enthusiasts might argue that "heavy tomato" should be considered to be a fourth strain).
The Carolinas are not alone when it comes to local variations of barbecue. The beef brisket of Texas Hill Country is legendary, but traditional barbacoa and various types of pork barbecue are just as much a part of Texas' barbecue heritage. The world-championship pork ribs served by John Wheeler of Rack and Soul are almost the opposite, in texture and flavor, of the world-championship pork ribs served by Mike Mills of 17th St. Bar and Grill; yet, both renderings of an American icon are distinct and delicious.
And while the pulled pork shoulder of Lexington, North Carolina has surely changed my perception of pulled pork for life, the shoulder cooked by Chris Lilly of Decatur, Alabama's Big Bob Gibson yielded the single best bite of pork I ate during my weekend at Madison Square Park.
The Block Party's finest reflection of barbecue's regional breadth—and my favorite of the 12 meals I shared with Serious Eats' Josh Bousel last weekend—was Moonlite BBQ's mutton, a form of 'cue confined to Davis County in Kentucky. Sweet and spicy with a softly shredded texture and the complex flavor of lamb, this sandwich was literally barbecue of a different breed. Small slices of pickle and onion were expertly included as a means of cutting through the gamy flavor of sheep meat.
Pitmaster Ken Bosley also paired his mutton with several heaping spoonfuls of burgoo, an addictive stew made of mutton, beef, chicken, potato, corn, onion and tomato. Just as Brunswick stew is a beloved dish in Georgia and Virginia, burgoo is essential to the Owensboro barbecue experience.
"You get out of the Davis County area, you get 60 miles outside of Owensboro, they don't eat burgoo, they don't eat mutton," chimed Moretta Bosley, a woman who singlehandedly proves that to be a true pitmaster, one must possess a true sense of sophistication. Her explanation of burgoo crossed quickly into local favorites far and wide—not only has her family enjoyed curried mutton in New Zealand and Australia, they have also traveled Europe and the United States with attentive taste buds. One of Bosley's fondest variations of barbecue is the backyard barbecue pork chop served with German fries at the Boston Tavern in New Boston, Indiana.
The stories of Moretta Bosley, along with the stories we heard while speaking with every other crew last weekend, made me feel sublimely lucky to be a part of an experience I initially thought would be just another exercise in pigging out.
As I asked every pitmaster to give me his or her definition of barbecue, one thing connected all the answers: a common appreciation for the other pitmasters' handiwork. T-shirts and caps from one crew were frequently spotted on the backs and heads another crew's members, and the differences between each booth's offerings were quick to dissolve as all celebrated the good company that makes any barbecue worth its weight in smoked meat.
"Is it becoming something that Americans are holding up, saying, 'This is who we are'?" asked John T. Edge towards the end of his panel discussion. While pontificating on this question, he highlighted that this festival had "transformed Madison Square Park into a Southern space, a hospitable space"—and in presenting America's first national food, it curated that food's many evolutions.
About the author: James Boo has been a barbecue enthusiast since he embarked on a two-week road trip through the American South, eating nothing but barbecue from Virginia to Texas. He's learned a thing or two, but as Serious Eats' Barbecue Bureau Chief he's found that there's plenty more to discover about America's first food. Catch up with his musings on Fridays here at Serious Eats, and check out his narrative food blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.