We love to rend flesh, most of us. Those chisel-shaped incisors at the front of our choppers aren’t designed merely to nibble at lettuce leaves. We don’t need our vestigial fangs, our canines, to tear into hummus or collards; the dual-duty bicuspids behind them do just as well. The nearly flat molars at the back, where everything ends up, are strong enough to crack bone, not just moosh tofu.
Believe me, as a dedicated meat-eater, I’ve heard all the arguments from my flora-gulping friends and activist foes, including the charts that compare our teeth, sweat glands and bowels to lower life forms that subsist on either meat (carnivores) or plants (herbivores). But they conveniently leave out the middle ground occupied by present day humanis eatemuppus: omnivores. Our choppers let us swing both ways.
True, our hairy forebears, the apes, subsist in the main on vegetarian stuff — although those chimps that were in the news several weeks ago for biting the face, ass and nads off a large, friendly humanoid had apparently grown weary of leaves and plants.
Evolution seems not to have been taken into account. No doubt, when our species was just a short time out of the trees, there were a few painfully thin trogs who sat around idly munching roots, leaves and berries, and farting far more than the others in yoga class. But the rest of them managed to run game to the ground, whack off a haunch and drag it home to their seriously overworked and underappreciated — and really bad smelling — trogesses.
Somewhere in the time since, the task of cooking that haunch fell to the guy who found it, and today, American parks, patios, back yards and church parking lots are overrun with trogs working grills, many of them indistinguishable from their ancient relatives.
They use acrid accelerants to blow up piles of compacted charcoal (Fun fact: Briquettes were invented at Ford Motor when waste-hating old Hank the First told his minions to find something useful and salable to make from floorboard scraps), then throw raw meat patties, wienies and brats into the fires of hell, all emerging with a carbon crust and apologies from the cook.
But then there’s barbecue, true ’cue, food of the gods who’ve blessed a chosen few among us with the patience, wisdom, skills and palates to pull off pulled pork, Texas brisket and Detroit ribs — never given their deserving place beside those from the South. (Part of the reason is the misguided rib cooks who insist on parboiling before grilling, both travesty and a heresy among the faithful.)
I’ve studied and practiced the art of barbecue, even the Zen of barbecue, for decades, and produce some highly commendable eats. But I’m still short of the true enlightenment displayed by Southern BQers in roadside shacks, those working over split oil drums curbside and in those church lots throughout the city, in Kansas City chowhouses and St. Louis meat joints.
This I know, and do with it what you will:
• Real barbecue is cooked in keeping with the mantra “low and slow.” The fire should be only of wood or unprocessed charcoal pieces that have been reduced to red-hot embers. And this fire must be monitored constantly to maintain even, low heat over a long (hours-long) time.
• True ’cue is smoked, not grilled, although it rests on a grill while indirect heat and smoke roll around it, developing that thrilling flavor that can never be approximated or approached by charring over chemical-soaked briquettes. I’ve tried most of the popular commercially produced smokers with mixed results. Electricity is convenient, but just doesn’t get the job done. If you’re going to go with one of these silo-shaped smokers, whose fires are contained under water pans to keep the meat moist, stick with a combination charcoal and wood burner. (This gives me a chance to plug an old friend, “Detroit Grill King” Robert Felton, who’s been custom-making sturdy grills and smokers from 55-gallon drums and larger materials in his West Side yard for 22 years. 313-368-2766; detroitgrillking.com.)
• If cooked correctly, when sliced, barbecue has a thick pink “smoke ring” just under the surface, the result of a chemical reaction between smoke and meat. Liquid Smoke is a weak, pale imitation of real smoke.
• The real deal, when raw, is massaged with a cook’s-choice combination of herbs and spices, allowed to marinate to absorb their flavors, then put on the grill and regularly mopped with another, liquid flavor blend until just before the end, when sauce is finally applied. This should darken and crisp into the “bark” that’s savored above all by barbecue lovers.
• If you want to make authentic Detroit barbecue sauce, it must begin with sweet ketchup and include tart citrus. The rest is up for debate.
As with anything, there’s a wealth of information online for aspiring barbecue masters, including DIY plans for grills and smokers. And the following books are well-worn personal favorites:
Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $35), by Lolis Eric Elie, photos by Frank Stewart.
Pigs and Pork: History, Folklore, Ancient Recipes (Konemann, $12.95), by Daniela Garavini.
License to Grill (Morrow, $27.50), by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby.
Now buy a nice 5-pound chunk of pork shoulder — although you should unashamedly call it by its barbecue handle, butt — then rub your butt and cook. Remember, low and slow, and smoke ’em when you got ’em.Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org