The Barbecue Primer. Again.
July 17th, 2020
(published in The Daily Memphian)
(photo: The reguiar-size barbecue at Payne's. Regular. Please.)
Nora and I recently finished watching – enduring – something called “Undercover” on Netflix. The storyline was the same old storyline again – you know – uncover cops embedded with the bad guys, drug deals, close misses, dead bodies, gratuitous sex, etc.
By the way, when Netflix sends you those emails that tell you some show is just right for you, some algorithm somewhere has just insulted you.
That being said we still watched. This time around the show was set in Belgium in a trailer park, and one of the sex scenes involved a shower in a trailer. We didn’t think gritty crime, gritty anything, happened in Belgium, and we didn’t think what we saw was possible in a trailer shower, so we kept watching.
Maybe Netflix was right.
But finally, the show lost all credibility. The head bad guy, a double-wide himself, kept having cookouts for the trailer park. He called them “barbecues.” He called his grill a “barbecue.” He called the burgers and sausage and such on his grill “barbecue.”
All of that – in any language, in subtitles – is not only beneath the dignity of any trailer park around here, it’s nothing short of an international crime.
In a gas station on a road trip right before the plague, I saw a pile of shredded something floating in some sort of orange gravy next to the potato logs and chicken. The sign said “Bar-B-Que.”
“Is that pork?” I asked. “Beef,” she answered, “I think.”
It was enough to take all the joy out of a random gas station stop. I didn’t even want the Slim Jims, Beer Nuts, or Hot Fries anymore.
Obviously, the world and gas stations still don’t understand. Our reputation remains at stake, so let’s review yet again. If you write for Netflix, or staff gas stations, or cook out, or eat – take this down.
Get it right.
If you don't get your barbecue in Memphis, you might as well get it in Belgium.
Any pig cooked for a considerable amount of time with any care 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.
A pizza chain has defiled it by producing something called Memphis Barbecue Pizza, covered in chicken. Clucking chicken. The McRib … a fast-food, fake-rib, pickle-covered, sweet-sauce-slathered sandwich … might be fine elsewhere. Serving it here should be a felony.
As you wander the world and see a sign somewhere that says Memphis Barbecue, run. It won’t make you homesick, just sick. It will be to barbecue what karaoke is to The Rolling Stones, and you won’t get no satisfaction.
Barbecue in Memphis is quite simply the highest a pig can go. A pig, people. Not any other creature, not even processed pork, but a whole or a recognizable part of a pig.
If it doesn’t involve a dead pig, it’s not barbecue.
A beef rib, while a challenging thing and 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 it does involve liquid smoke, it’s not barbecue. I’ve driven through liquid smoke, gotten some in my eye in a bar, even felt it immediately following that shrimp dish with the four red peppers next to it on the menu. I don’t want any of that on my pork shoulder.
If the sauce is from foreign shores … say Kansas City, Texas, or North Carolina, much less Belgium … 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. I might make exceptions for London Broil or Seafood Boil since those are specific dishes. I might, but I won’t.
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 a grill. Or a cooker. Or a 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.
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