"I actually agree that the best barbecue is made with wood smoke. Smoke, however, is not nearly enough to make for the best barbecue."
Not all hogs go to heaven.
This is certainly true in the case of barbecue. While the worst barbecue is granted a modicum of honor by default, not even the halo of tradition can save a poorly cooked piece of meat. Ironically, I was served proof of this at Nashville's own Hog Heaven, where I stopped off for the final meal of my recent trip to Tennessee for the Memphis in May barbecue competition.
My experience at Hog Heaven offers insight to a sacred yet slippery pillar of American barbecue. There are a few key tenets to the art of barbecue, the holiest of which is using wood smoke to flavor meat. The glorification of smoke—its scent, its flavor, its intangible, fundamental expression of the nature we've so blithely expended as a members of a mechanized society—tends to tower over barbecue as the banner of its authenticity.
I actually agree that the best barbecue is made with wood smoke. Smoke, however, is not nearly enough to make for the best barbecue. The use of wood and coals in cooking is only one part of the process, and its application varies according to style, meat, and personality.
In fact, some of the best wood-smoked barbecue I've tasted offers only a hint of the smokiness that is apparently in enough demand to justify the invention and sale of liquid smoke, a literal extraction of smoke's savory appeal.
"Hickory smoked," boasted Hog Heaven's menu in reverence to the barbecue gods. These words aren't the only abstraction of barbecue to be found here. Hog Heaven is a minuscule shack off Centennial Park in Nashville, located literally behind a McDonald's and adjunct to a honky-tonk dive called the Springwater Supper Club and Dive, where you're perfectly welcome to bring in your pulled pork should you need a cheap beer to wash it down. Barbecue sandwiches are sold for under $4 by friendly, young employees through small glass windows, and closing time is usually 7 p.m.
To a barbecue hound, this scene is nothing short of a divine vision. It certainly was enough to keep me coming back for more. (My most recent visit to Hog Heaven was actually my third in as many years.)
When I had visited Hog Heaven in the past, I marveled at the strong, smoky flavor of the pulled pork. It stood out in my mind as a testament to the necessity of wood for great barbecue. When I peeled back to the sheet of insulated foil wrapped around my order to reveal that classic white bread bun, I braced myself for a religious experience.
Sadly, prior memories were replaced with an underwhelming heap of meat that managed to be right and wrong in all ways at once. The pulled pork, while very smoky and pulled in textbook style, was simply dry. In some spots the meat was even gritty or tough, but not in the delightful, tasty-bits-of-brown way exhibited by the barbecue I had wolfed down at Payne's in Memphis just a few days earlier.
Aside from the strong taste of hickory, my barbecue lacked any other flavor, which should register as a disappointment to anyone who loves the taste of good pork. Hog Heaven's white sauce, a tangy and peppery treat, made my meal much more tasty, but sauce alone is rarely enough to redeem a flawed piece of meat. Dousing my sandwich with red and white only highlighted the fact that Hog Heaven's smoke and sauce were essentially masks of flavor.
This realization was even more apparent in Hog Heaven's pork ribs, which had truly fallen from grace. While the bark of each rib retained a telltale smoke ring, peeling away that bark revealed an entirely unappetizing layer of slick, flavorless fat beneath. Serious Eats columnist J. Kenji Lopez-Alt and Josh Bousel, technical gurus of the grill, conjecture that this unhappy image was likely the result of cooking so quickly that the collagen in these ribs didn't have enough time to break down into moist, juicy flavor.
Consequently, much of the meat on the bone had been smoked to jerky, which wouldn't have been a bad thing if what was left hadn't been so unpleasant. Hog Heaven's unevenly cooked ribs were the only ones I've come across that were no fun to eat; I was unable to finish even their salty, chewy bark for the sake of ritual.
The sad surprise of my lunch at Hog Heaven could be chalked up to a bad day, an inexperienced cook, a change of ownership or any other hypothetical explanation for why any restaurant loses its grip on truly great food.
It's also likely, though, that I had built up the abstract notions of barbecue—holy smoke, saintly shacks and the glory of the rib—so much that I lost touch with the fact that good pork demands communion with the living world. Smoke may be the one true faith when it comes to barbecue, but to the almighty taste bud, smoke alone is not salvation.
115 27th Avenue N., Nashville TN 37203 (Behind McDonald's; map)
Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
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.
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