With Madison?s 100 inches of snow finally melting, the
season of warm weather cuisine is officially upon us. The sunshine beating down
on the Capitol dome is a sign of the upcoming months filled with springtime and
The seasons ahead hold a cornucopia of light, refreshing
foods like ice cream, sweet corn and watermelon. For the meat lovers among us,
though, the most exciting of these vernal delights is neither fresh produce nor
frozen treats but barbecue, the king of all meat preparations.
To many people in this part of the country, ?barbecue? is a
verb synonymous with ?grill.? However, for Americans in the southern and
western regions of the nation, barbecue is a noun that describes
fall-off-the-bone-tender meats cooked slowly over a smoky fire. It goes without
saying that true barbecue is light years away from humble brats and burgers.
With the popularity of chain restaurants like Famous Dave?s
and Chili?s, most Wisconsinites have at least experienced a goodheartedly
bastardized version of this delicacy. However, precious few northerners are
privy to its history, cooking methods and regional variations.
Barbecue probably began in the 1500s, when West Indian
natives likely taught Spanish settlers how to build a device called a barbacoa. It consisted of a rack of immature wood placed over
coals that allowed the natives to cook their meats slowly with the use of
indirect heat. However, pork, the most common meat in modern American barbecue,
was not native to the region, so the Spanish were probably the first to use a barbacoa to produce the tender pork barbecue we know and love
The West Indians, the Spanish and the American pitmasters who
followed in their footsteps all knew that secret to making great barbecue lies
in the mantra ?low and slow.? By cooking at low temperatures for several hours,
it is possible to render tough, inexpensive cuts of meat more succulent than
This seemingly alchemical process leads many people to
wonder how the meat becomes so tasty. One common myth is that barbecue is
pleasantly juicy merely because it is undercooked. The pink ?smoke ring? on the
inside of properly prepared barbecue has led many otherwise perfectly rational
omnivores to believe this lie.
Luckily for digestive tracts all across the country,
barbecue?s tenderness is not a result of undercooking. The smoke ring is a result
of a chemical reaction caused by nitrogen dioxide in smoke, and barbecue
reaches an internal temperature that is about 30 degrees warmer than a medium rare
steak. It might seem, then, that barbecue is overcooked meat, but this is not
the case, either.
The reason for this lies in an important difference between
meats used for barbecue and meats used for grilling. The former are generally inexpensive
cuts full of collagen; if such meats were simply seared to doneness on the
grill, they would come out tough and unappetizing. The reason for the seemingly
overcooked meat?s succulence is at around 160 degrees, the collagen in the meat
begins to turn into liquid gelatin and coat the meat fibers. The proteins that
once made the meat unappetizingly tough ultimately come to give it a uniquely
Even though the principle of slow heat and long cooking time
underlies all barbecue preparation, the dish varies considerably from place to
The style that probably seems most foreign to residents of
the upper Midwest is the dry rub style popular in areas such as Texas and
Memphis. Although it is more common to cook beef in Texas and pork in
Tennessee, the two styles share a similar process.
This genre of ?cue places emphasis on the actual meat itself.
Residents of these parts of the country would argue that no matter one?s
personal taste, barbecue must be palatable without sauce. The only liquid that
touches the meat during cooking is a ?mop sauce? that usually consists of beef
broth, ketchup and spices. When the meat is done cooking, though, its exterior
is relatively dry, and it is up to the diner to decide whether he or she wants
to add sauce.
The reigning styles of barbecue in St. Louis and Kansas City
are on the other side of the sauce spectrum. Although the sauce in Kansas City
tends to be thicker and sweeter than that in St. Louis, the two varieties use a
similar cooking technique. In preparing both kinds of barbecue, cooks begin
with a dry cooking method such as grilling or roasting, and they finish the
meats in a slowly simmering sauce.
A third style of
barbecue ? that of the Carolinas ? defines itself not by its position on the wet-dry
spectrum but on the sheer diversity of its sauces. In North Carolina, three
sauces are common: the vinegar and pepper sauce native to the region, the
?light tomato? sauce that results from the addition of ketchup and the ?heavy
tomato? sauce that dominates Kansas City barbecue. South Carolinians use these
three as well as a fourth type of sauce, a mustard-based condiment that is a
result of 18th-century German migration to the state. Although Carolinian
pitmasters are every bit as serious about cooking as those in other parts of
the country, it is the diversity of sauces, not their techniques, that makes
their style of barbecue special.
While there are definite regional trends in barbecue, no
absolute geographical categorizations are completely fair. One can find
proponents of ?saucier? styles of barbecue in regions that are supposedly
dry-rub country and vice versa. Furthermore, there are even subtler nuances to
barbecue once one becomes more specific about its state, city or even
establishment of origin. Nevertheless, regional labels are helpful insofar as
they help to shed light on the diversity of this warm weather delicacy.
Jason Engelhart is a senior majoring in economics and
history. You may contact him with questions, comments, concerns, financial
advice and recipes at [email protected]