There is one practice, entirely Southern in tradition, that has left an indelible and irrevocable mark upon our nation. It has been a catalyst for politicians, a neutralizer of social classes, and a unifier of church congregations for centuries. It is a tradition that is the tasty heart and soul of the South, though its legacy has expanded north of the Mason-Dixon and into countries far and wide. Our Southern heritage owes itself to a short fat animal with pointy ears, a snout, curly tail and an oh-so-tasty flesh. The South was built on barbecue.
It is nearly impossible to travel in the South without seeing a sign with a happy, grinning pink pig advertising local barbecue. The origins of barbecue (also often spelled Bar-B-Que or BBQ) can be easily traced to the colonial days, when pigs were set out by farmers in nearby woods to forage for their food. These semi-wild pigs were a bit tougher and stringier than modern day pigs, so various methods of tenderizing had to occur to make the meat edible. A method that not only tenderized the meat, but also preserved it for future use was to rub the meat in salts and spices, then slowly cook it over a smoky low-heat fire.
In the years before the Civil War, the practice of holding neighborhood barbecues became very common in the South. Plantation owners regularly held large and festive celebrations, giving the ‘pig pickin’s’ to the slaves for their own use. Many historians believe that the pig shoulder— one of the toughest and less desirable cuts of pork— would have been among the pieces given to the slaves. Every bit of this pork was utilized, and even longer, slower methods of smoking and then pulling the shoulder meat were used to make these cuts tender and edible. Pulled pork as we know it originated from these cooking techniques.
Just before the War Between the States, regional patriotism made pork production more and more important. Relatively little of the pork produced was exported out of the South, and hog production became a way for Southerners to create a self-sufficient food supply– Southern pork for Southern patriots. Hogs became fatter and better cared-for, and farmers began to feed them corn to plump them up before slaughter. During this period, Southerners ate, on average, five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef.
Throughout the nineteenth century, barbecue was a prominent feature at church picnics and political rallies in southern communities. A barbecue was a popular and relatively inexpensive way to lobby for votes, and the organizers of political rallies would provide barbecue, thick slices of good bread, lemonade, and usually a bit of whiskey. These political rallies are often cited as the source of the expression, “Going whole hog.”
These gatherings were also an easy way for different classes to mix. Barbecue was not a class- specific food, and large groups of people from every stratum could mix to eat, drink and listen to stump speeches. Journalist Jonathan Daniels, writing in the mid-twentieth century, maintained that, “Barbecue is the dish which binds together the taste of both the people of the big house and the poorest occupants of the back end of the broken-down barn.”
Political and church barbecues were among the first examples of this phenomenon. Church barbecues, where roasted pig supplemented the covered dishes prepared by the ladies of the congregation, were a manifestation of the traditional church picnic in many Southern communities. These customs continue today across America.
Barbecue in modern day is very similar to its ancestral beginnings in its preparation and seasoning, though pricey stainless steel grills commonly replace crude dirt-pits of yesteryear. It has become a competitive sport, boasting contests in nearly every state, as well as several foreign countries, with millions of dollars in prize money awarded annually. Barbecue is now the basis for a reality TV show (BBQ Pitmasters), the subject of many Food TV shows, and the fodder of thousands of websites, blogs and podcasts.
Barbecuing is simple in theory but complex to master. Professionals who have spent decades perfecting marinating techniques and seasoning blends will be the first to tell you there’s always something more to learn. Though you may not be on an upcoming episode of BBQ Pitmasters any time soon, you can still learn the art of barbecue well-enough to impress your friends and family.
Most importantly, you’ll need a pit in which to smoke your meat. Though they come in a wide variety of materials and price ranges, basically a pit is a wood-burning container in which your meat can be cooked indirectly (from the heated smoke rather than directly over a flame.) Ideally, the pit temperature should be approximately 225 degrees, to provide for very low heat which, over the long cook time, will tenderize and flavor the meet.
When learning to barbecue pig, you will want focus on two main areas at first- ribs and ‘butt’ (which is really the shoulder). Though very different preparation methods and cooking times separate the two, these are the most common selections of pork to cook in the traditional barbecue method. Ribs are generally thought to be a better cut for a first-time barbecuer.
Here’s a tip from the competition pros— when cooking ribs, first remove the membrane on the backside of the ribs before seasoning. Gently insert a sharp knife along the tip of the membrane, and work the transparent covering entirely off the backside. Not only will this improve tenderness in the final product, but the removal of this film will allow smoke and seasoning to permeate the meat more thoroughly.
Next you should season the ribs with dry rub. A novice might want to consider a store bought pre-mix, such as Jack’s Old South Hickory Rub (www.jacksoldsouth.com) or Byron’s Butt Rub (www.buttrub.com and also sold at Winn Dixie), though many will mix their own blend of salt, pepper, paprika, turbinado sugar, onion powder and other secret ingredients.
The ribs are then rubbed with this mixture of dry seasonings, and laid to rest on a shelf in the pit. An average rack of St. Louis trimmed ribs (the ends or tips are cut off) will take approximately four hours to smoke at 200-250 degrees. During this smoke time, most pit masters will use a ‘mop sauce’ hourly to keep the ribs moist and add to the flavor profile. Mop sauce is generally comprised of apple juice, vinegar, butter or oil, and various seasonings of preference, though the folks in the Carolinas will argue that vinegar, pepper and yellow mustard work just fine. Always remember, the internal temperature of the ribs should reach 185 degrees prior to serving.
Though many people prefer a sauce added to their ribs after cooking, it is hardly necessary if they are cooked and seasoned properly. Commercially prepared sauces which have only sprung up over the last sixty years can be added as a final touch prior to serving, though there is no substitute for your own personalized home-made sauce. A quick and tasty sauce can be made with a little melted butter, sautéed onions, ketchup and brown sugar in a matter of moments. Additional additives such as cayenne pepper, minced jalapeño, honey, black coffee or lemon juice can add a tailored signature taste to your creation.
As is tradition in the South, barbecue pork of any kind signals a celebration and is best enjoyed with friends. Make sure you have some thick sliced white bread and lemonade (or whiskey!) handy, so you can go ‘whole hog’ just like our forefathers who began our fine legacy of friendly gatherings and smoked meats now known worldwide as Southern barbecue.