Southern barbecue

Down-home Americana has become a firm trend in casual dining out. Southern barbecue, in all its slow-cooked, hickory-shrouded glory, is now commonplace across all sorts of menus from the numerous new Mexican/US-influenced eateries to upmarket pub grub. The king of this Southern feast is pulled pork.

Pulling the pork
Pulling the pork

Pulled pork is pig done well. A 4kg shoulder butt, the preferred meat, takes 7 or 8 hours to cook, with joints at some southern barbecues cooking in pits for up to 24 hours.

Pulled pork is pig with tradition. In the southern US states (like North and South Carolina) barbecue is a huge social occasion often at public events with legendary cook-offs. Rumour has it that guardians of the pit during these marathons start the day with coffee, move on to beer and finish off on the whisky as the meat gently tenderises and slowly falls apart in the gulf of sweet smoke.

Any outdoor barbecue celebration can be called a pig pickin’ – the point is meat is first pulled or shredded while a portion is left on the bone to be picked off with the fingers.

Pulled pork bun with coleslaw
Pulled pork bun with coleslaw

American food writer James Villas provocatively states in his book Pig, “Southern barbecue is probably the most controversial and misunderstood subject on earth.”

Villas offers up a few guiding principles so tourists of Southern cuisine don’t get themselves in too much hot water:

  • Southern barbecue is about using smoke and fire for prolonged cooking times. A “barbecue” of flashing meat or sausages on a hot flame grill this is not (in the US, that’s ‘grilling’).
  • Barbecue always refers to a specific food or event – not the metal contraption. (That’s the grill mentioned above).
  • 99% of the time in the South, barbecue refers to one meat only: pig. It involves slow-cooking in a pit or kettle drum. If you barbecue beef, you’re probably Texan.
  • What distinguishes pork barbecue styles is not so much the cooking times but the sauces and rubs that produce different flavours and wet or dry textures. Generally sauces in the eastern mid-Atlantic states are more spicy, vinegar-based clear emulsions and these gradually become thicker, more tomato and mustard-enriched, and sweeter, the further south and west you go.
  • Coleslaw, baked beans and French fries are almost universal as side dishes, and most states have local additions to this.
Barbecue on the truck
Preparing southern barbecue on the back of a truck for a wedding banquet in the US (photo thanks to Kurt Dyer)

The first pig was first introduced to the US by Spanish explorers in 1539. By the first half of the nineteenth century, as meat quality improved through rearing techniques, today’s barbecue traditions of the South were laid down. A barbecue became the primary feature of events such as church picnics and political rallies, and leading up to the Civil War, it was a major symbol of Southern regional identity.

In the racially segregated South, barbecue was a tradition that straddled black and white food cultures.  Plantation owners would hold a pig pickin’ for slaves, a rare festive occasion, and many of the most popular barbecue shacks were, and continue to be, owned by blacks and frequented by blacks and whites – more on the cultural ties of Southern barbecue is available on this University of Virginia history site.

Villas says of barbecue shacks today: “Barbecue houses are the most socially democratic institutions on the globe, and nothing indicates a great one like the presence of pickup trucks parked out front next to expensive Cadillacs and Mercedes.”

When we made this at home we didn’t venture far from the barbecue for 7 or 8 hours. Not too much hardship as the rich smells deepened, the sun shone and the amber ale ran.  We doused our 4kg piece of pig in Villas’ South Carolina sauce recipe and served it simply with coleslaw and buns.

What about this though?  Featured on a Southern food writer’s blog, the “barbecue sundae” consists of pulled pork, slaw and baked beans layered in a mason jar with dill pickle.


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