Barbecue traditions are a point of pride. Varying from country to country and region to region, what constitutes proper barbecue is a hot topic.
Cooking meat over open flame evokes something primal in the men (and women) who do it. Watch a pit master of the American South cook whole hog 'cue — and the men who gather around to watch — and it's clear that there's simply something ritualistic about the process.
It's the Pits
Pit master Rodney Scott lives in Hemingway, S.C., where he runs the business his father opened in 1972, Scott's Variety Store and Bar-B-Que. It's an unassuming place, but people flock to it. There, Scott smokes whole pigs over pecan, oak and hickory wood.
Scott, now 42, cooked his first hog at 11 under the guidance of his dad, who occasionally still mans the pits.
Scott got into the barbecue trade because it's what he knows, and he also knows a good business plan when he sees one. “I noticed that everybody eats, regardless of what the economy does,” he says.
He also loves food, and the feelings it inspires. “There's no words to explain someone's face when they're enjoying good food,” he says.
Though the style of cooking has stayed the same over the years, Scott's clientele has changed.
“It's no longer local farmers or local laborers on the farm,” he says. Blame it on The New York Times, Time Magazine or any number of other publications that seek Scott out for his straightforward demeanor and proficiency with a hog.
Up to a dozen pigs go over that hardwood every day. Just one or two used to be plenty.
The barbecue seekers are in search of Scott. “They're curious to see what's the difference," he says. "What is South Carolina barbecue, compared to North Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City, different styles like that.”
Carolina on My Mind
Even within South Carolina, there are divisions between barbecue camps. The middle to the western part of the state favors a mustard-based sauce. Scott says the vinegar and pepper sauce of the coastal Pee Dee region, where he lives, is considered by many to be the South Carolina 'cue. Just try telling that to the mustard-lovers.
Jim Early, head of the North Carolina Barbecue Society, has his own ideas of what barbecue means.
Early penned The Best Tarheel Barbecue Book, “which some have graciously called the best that's ever been written,” he says.
“In North Carolina, barbecue is a noun,” Early says. “And it is pork. Outside of North Carolina, barbecue is a verb. It's anything you want to cook on the grill. You're 'barbecuing' with an I-N-G.”
People, says Early, claim they're barbecuing anything — even vegetables. “But the FDA definition of barbecue is meat, cooked slowly over live coals,” he says with uncommon conviction.
As with South Carolina, opinions about true barbecue vary within the state of North Carolina.
In the Piedmont area, Lexington-style barbecue, pork shoulders and ketchup-based sauce, is the style of choice. East of Chapel Hill, barbecue means cooking whole hog (“everything but the squeal,” says Early) and dressing it with a vinegar-based sauce.
That sauce apparently gives Stephen Colbert fits. On Comedy Central's Colbert Report, the comedian, whose sister recently lost a congressional special election in South Carolina, threatened to shift his alliance to North Carolina.
Then he tried some of the state's barbecue and gagged.
Early was contacted by a food editor for comment. Sounding a bit sore, Early explains how he sidestepped the question — by pointing to a Google analytics study that claims North Carolina to be the 'cue capital of the nation.
“I wasn't going to get into a spitting contest with Steven Colbert,” Early says.
Carolyn Wells co-founded the Kansas City Barbecue Society in the late-'70s. The society now has more than 17,000 members and has certified more than 24,000 barbecue judges. The group hosts 450 competitions yearly, mostly in the U.S., but some in other countries. “We're branching out internationally — but we are Americana,” she says.
Wells agrees the Carolinas are the cradle of American 'cue — but she's not quite willing to cede ultimate authority to the area.
“Memphis is the undisputed pork capital of the world,” she says. “It's the home of dry ribs, which means they're seasoned with dry rub and no sauce.”
And what of Texas? “The entire state of Texas considers itself to be a barbecue mecca,” Wells says. “And if you don't believe it, just ask a Texan.” The meat of choice there is beef, typically smoked over mesquite or post oak.
Then there's Kansas City. More or less in the center of the Untied States, the area is somewhat of a meting pot of barbecue. “Because it was a rail head in these cattle drives coming up from Texas, because of Western migration of Southerners, it's sort of where it all came together,” Wells said.
As a result, Kansas City tends to be rather diplomatic about what true 'cue entails. “Here, if it moves, we cook it,” Wells says.
Barbecue traditions are not limited to the U.S. The Japanese have their yakitori, the name of a grill and also a dish. Brazil has churrasco, meat speared on sword-like skewers and roasted over charcoal.
In South Africa, meat is also roasted over charcoal on a grill called a braai. Braai is also a verb, according to Zingo Munger who, despite his unique name, does not hail from South Africa. “I am from exotic Chapel Hill, actually,” he says. “Zingo is a nickname I got from playing in bands there.”
Munger, a distributor of South African wines, spends plenty of time in the country. On the braai, South Africans "braai" anything from pots of stew to springbok, an antelope native to South Africa. “It may sound strange, but it's just their version of venison,” he says.
According to Rodney Scott, the best part about barbecue, no matter where you're from or what you call it, is the camaraderie. “The long hours, the preparation, the fellowship of the people coming together and preparing for it,” he says. “The sitting around when you're cooking it and the enjoyment when it's done.”
As for the barbecue debates? Scott says they're unnecessary. “Let's just all cook and eat,” he says. “Good barbecue's good barbecue, regardless of where you go.”