While fried chicken is inevitably the star of a picnic in the South, barbecue rules a cookout at home. And in the Deep South, where I come from, barbecue is long-cooked pork shoulder, not beef as it is in Texas or ribs as in Tennessee or Missouri.
That doesn’t mean it’s all the same. Though the general cooking method is similar, the sauces served and the manner of presentation differ widely.
Often called pulled pork for the variety torn into small pieces with forks — or fingers — it’s often chopped with two cleavers instead.
It’s the sauces that differ the most, however. In western North Carolina, where I went to college, the sauce is a thin vinegar sauce containing tomato (often ketchup). In eastern North Carolina, it’s a biting sauce of vinegar, black pepper and red pepper. In South Carolina, they base the sauce on mustard.
Elsewhere, the sauce is likely to be a more familiar, sweet, smoky red sauce. I’ve made many from scratch, but find none better than those from the supermarket, especially Bullseye.
Legends and mysteries abound in cooking the meat itself. The best cut is the pork shoulder, oddly called the Boston butt, but the front “ham” is second best. You can cook a whole pig for a special occasion, but that’s not practical for most people, and a typical pork butt can feed up to two dozen anyway.
The pork must be cooked long and slow. That can be a problem for impatient Americans, but there’s a way around that: Cook it for a few hours over a smoky fire to infuse flavor, then finish the process in an oven.
Any way you cook the meat, however, it’s a significant time commitment, for you have to start by rubbing the meat with a flavorful mixture, preferably the day before.
Fans blow a lot of smoke over the rubs, but the primary components are salt, pepper and hot pepper (cayenne). You can add a bit of sugar, paprika and chili powder and cumin if you want to get a dark, flavorful “bark,” but they’re not really necessary.
A covered cooking chamber is vital, and the optimum source of heat is hickory or hardwood charcoal with chunks of hickory soaked in water so they burn slowly, giving the characteristic flavor. Don’t even think about using charcoal impregnated with petroleum or starter to start the fire. Use a chimney, electric ring or propane torch.
You can also use a gas grill with wood chunks, if you must.
The trick is to keep a relatively cool, smoky fire going, but not have the meat directly over it. Have a disposable aluminum pan underneath to catch the drippings; there will be plenty.
After three hours in the smoker oven, wrap the meat tightly in heavy-duty aluminum foil, then roast it in the oven for about three more hours. It will hit about 200 degrees when the meat has cooked long enough to break down connective tissue and make it tender.
Then take it out of the oven, but leave tightly wrapped for a full hour before removing bones and excess fat and pulling or chopping.
You’ll notice that no sauce is used in cooking; it’s added later to taste.
The traditional wrapper in the Carolinas is white bread slices, but I think a firm roll is better. Hamburger buns are sweet, and I prefer French-type buns.
A bit of coleslaw is usually added, often vinegary cabbage salad, not the more common version with mayonnaise and buttermilk.
Traditional sides are potato salad, pickles, hush puppies, and often, sliced tomatoes and sweet onions.
I’ve found a trick to making good potato salad: Use waxy potatoes like Red Bliss, not russets that soak up too much dressing, and toss the sliced warm potatoes with basic vinaigrette immediately. You can mix in the mayonnaise later.
Hush puppies — little balls of fried cornmeal batter — are delicious, but many people have an irrational fear of frying. Note that little fat is absorbed if the temperature of the oil is right (360 to 375 degrees) and you can save and reuse the oil after filtering through paper towels. Just make sure to salt immediately after frying or the salt won’t stick.
The traditional oil is peanut, but you could always use bacon or pork fat.
Pecan pie is a traditional dessert — my grandfather had a pecan “plantation” near Montgomery — and I’ve found none better than the recipe on the Karo syrup label. I prefer dark Karo, though some use light. If you don’t want to make the pie crust, Trader Joe’s sells frozen crusts made with butter rather than hydrogenated vegetable shortening, but the others are OK too.
We didn’t have a lot of appetizers before the meal, as the smell of the pork and hush puppies was enough to increase any appetite. I do remember deviled eggs and celery sticks stuffed with pimento cheese.
Sweetened ice tea was the usual beverage, though the adults had a bourbon drink or two, maybe a mint julep, before eating. Now, I’d recommend a nice elegant Buehler zinfandel, and wouldn’t hesitate to offer a Sutter Home white zin to those who prefer it, like my sister in North Carolina or my son-in-law’s sister in Mariposa.
Barbecued Pulled Pork
1 pork butt or picnic ham (6 to 8 lbs)
1 1/2 Tbsp. salt
1 Tbsp. black pepper
1 tsp. cayenne
1 Tbsp. chili powder
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
2 Tbsp. paprika
Remove most of the thick fat on the surface. Mix the rub together and rub thoroughly into all the pork’s surface, then place the pork in a large plastic bag (a turkey roasting bag is perfect) for 3 hours to overnight.
Make a moderate charcoal fire in half of a covered grill; place a disposable aluminum pan on the other half. Put a few chucks of soaked hickory on the charcoal.
Place the pork roast over the pan and cover. Maintain moderate heat — say, 325 degrees — for 3 hours, adding a few pieces of charcoal every half-hour to maintain heat. Rotate the pork at least once. You can also turn it over if you’re ambitious.
Remove from the grill, wrap in aluminum foil, and place in a 325-degree over for 3 hours. Take it out and let stand for an hour in the aluminum foil.
Remove the foil, and when cool enough to handle, remove and discard the bones and big fat clumps. Pull apart with two forks or fingers, or chop into small pieces.
This technique was derived from America’s Test Kitchen.
Makes 2 dozen.
1 1/2 cups cornmeal (preferably stone ground and white)
1/4 cup white flour
4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 large eggs
3/4 cup buttermilk (add a little more if too dry)
1 Tbsp. melted butter or bacon grease
1 small grated onion (about 1/4 cup)
2 large, finely minced garlic cloves
2 pieces crisp bacon, crumbled (optional)
Lard, bacon fat or peanut or vegetable oil for frying
Mix all ingredients together and let sit for 5 minutes. Heat oil to 360-375 degrees in Dutch oven or fryer. Shape into small round or cylindrical pieces (If they’re too wet, add a bit more cornmeal or flour, or simply drop wet spoonfuls into the hot oil).
Fry until golden, drain on rack over paper towels and salt. Serve immediately.
1 head of green cabbage
Cider vinegar, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
Shred head of green cabbage, sprinkle with salt and let drain for an hour. Taste for saltiness; rinse if too salty. Wet with cider vinegar to taste and let sit for at least an hour. Check for salt and add pepper.