Memphis Barbecue Primer

May 5th, 2016

This month, Memphis is about two things Memphis is very good at – barbecue and a month-long party – and this week and next I’m revisiting some of my thoughts about both.

Both good things. Both ours.

As published in The Memphis Daily News, May 6, 2016, and in The Memphis News, May 7-13, 2016

(Photo: This is a regular barbecue sandwich at Payne’s – regular. I think it should be on the city’s seal. It’s out of focus because my hands are shaking in anticipation of getting into this bad, bad boy.)



The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is next week. One of my first columns was about defining barbecue when no definition should be necessary. Sadly, we’ve slipped further and further down a saucy slope and basic definitions are required again.

Any pig cooked for a considerable amount of time is going to taste pretty good, but, in this town, that doesn’t make it barbecue. We have elevated that term to legendary status. We are to barbecue what Kleenex is to facial tissue, what Coke is to all soft drinks in the South. We are barbecue.

Things likes The McRib – a fast-food, fake-rib, pickle-covered, sweet-sauce-slathered sandwich – might be fine elsewhere. Serving it here should be a felony. A hot dog may be hot, but it’s no more barbecue than dog. Barbecue here is quite simply the highest a pig can go. Bona fide pig, people, not processed pork, not any other creature – a whole or recognizable part of a pig.

Our reputation is at stake, so let’s review.

If it doesn’t involve a dead pig, it’s not barbecue. A beef rib, while not without flavor or merit as a fungo bat or a handy club, is not barbecue. Brisket and barbecue both begin with a b. There ends the similarity. Chicken can be prepared a thousand satisfying ways. None of them is barbecue. Goat, cooked oh-so-slow and basted in an oh-so perfect and time-honored blend of seasonings, is, well, a goat. It’s not barbecue.

If the sauce is from foreign shores – say Kansas City, Texas or North Carolina – it’s not barbecue. And even using the right sauce or seasoning doesn’t make something barbecue any more than dressing up like Elvis makes you able to sing a lick. Cherry cough drops aren’t cherries. Potato chips aren’t barbecue.

Barbecue is not a verb. You don’t barbecue anything. If you’re fortunate enough to be given the skill, and you have a whole pig or some portion thereof, you can cook, or smoke, or make, or fix a whole mess of barbecue. You don’t eat a process.

Barbecue is not a place or a device. I’m not going to a barbecue, just like I’m not going to the corner of steak and onion rings. If there’s anything red hot on my patio, I’m not calling it a barbecue, and I’m not putting anything on a barbecue except slaw and sauce. You don’t eat an event. Or grill. Or cooker. Or pit.

These are the essentials. Spelling doesn’t matter. Barbecue. Bar-b-que. Bar-B-Q. Q. BBQ. For ribs, wet or dry can be legitimately debated. For shoulder, pulled or chopped are both acceptable. Long enough is the right cooking time. You can take a weekend to cook a whole hog and The Rendezvous cooks their ribs in about an hour. It’s the intrinsic nature, the soul if you will, of Memphis barbecue that has eliminated the need to modify it with Memphis. Real barbecue is Memphis, and anything else is not.

I’m a Memphian, and so is barbecue.


Mark Pennington: Makes me homesick...People in the north think B-B-Q is an activity...in the west, brisket. Just give me a good mixed pig with slaw on a Wonder Bread bun....Sure beats steak! Mark

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