Monday, June 05, 2006

On Barbecue (part 1)

It's time we had a sit-down. A barbecue sit-down. And while I'd like to say that a barbecue sit-down means plumping asses on a long park bench and burying faces in a wax-paper plateful of smoked beef n' sides, a couple of rowdy pork partisans demonstrated to me this weekend that we don't all share a similar vision for the summer's grilling agenda.

Specifically, it was alleged that the vinegar-based pulled-pork method, sampled by many (including this writer) at a roadstop in North Carolina en route to Beach Weekend, is superior to the slow-smoked brisket of my homeland. The allegers even profferred testimony to the fact from two "Texans" to buttress their case. Having no opportunity to cross-examine these so-called Lone Star witnesses—and knowing only that one hailed from Plano, TX, which would be sufficient reason to dismiss his deposition, given a jury of my peers—I can only maintain my steadfast obstinance in the face of a party of negativity.

Or perhaps I can't. So loud has the call for pulled pork grown from certain parties that the debate appears on the verge of boiling over into a conflict. I want to cut off a crisis before it brews into a mutiny, and so I'm here with a message of explanation and, I hope, reconciliation.

There's only one standard of barbecue to which I aspire. (Close this window now if you think I was about to say Bobby Flay. You ass.) An eater versed in the ways of Texas barbecue might assume I mean Black's, which has since 1932 stood as the seat of Texas barbecue power, in a class alone among even the giants of Lockhart, TX—the true capital of the state. Nor do I hold to the severe model set forth by Kreuz Market (pronounced "Krites"), whose outright hostility toward sauce (a popular view in some parts of Central Texas) and forks (less so) is coupled with a rejection of traditional sides in favor of a more holistic approach (e.g., whole tomatoes, avocadoes, and onions are served). Which might bring to mind the austerity of Alice Waters, if, you know, that weren't sort of a silly thing to say about a smokehouse with deep German roots.

No, I only ever hope to come within an order of magnitude of the excellence as can be found at the Salt Lick in Driftwood, TX. Maybe it's merely the fond memories that puts the Salt Lick above the fold—along with the cherished Grist Mill, it's one of those places you only go after a long day spent working on your sunburn or tubing down the Guadalupe—but the Salt Lick's menu stands the test. Every platter is served with just the right sides: pitch-perfect potato salad, crisp cole slaw, pinto beans, bread (thick-sliced, white bread, obvs), pickles, and onions. Not a selection of them, mind you—all of them. Anchoring those platters you have either perfect smoked brisket, perfect Elgin sausage, or perfect pork ribs—or all three, via the gut-splitting family-style option. (Point of reference: the Gigantomachy was catered by one $15.95 Salt Lick family-style platter. I'm only saying.)

And my lord, the sauce. What a sauce, what a sauce. A NYT correspondent writes that her BBQ-apprenticing husband calls the unique Salt Lick sauce "the elixir of life, if by life you mean grilled meat. Which I do." It is unique in the correct, superlative meaning of the word—there isn't another sauce like it. It's a sweet mustard-based sauce that contains no tomatoes. Nearly heresy; certainly, sacrilicious.

Each time I step up to the smoker I think about the Salt Lick standard. Okay—so that really isn't true at all. In fact I haven't been thinking much about new ways to push Grill Command. I pushed back my plans to take a serious stab at a signature sweet sauce (i.e., develop something that isn't grainy or chunky or just kind of wrong), and having just acquired the tools and makings for chow-chow, that sauce milemarker looks all the more distant. We all remember the last barbecue, with an attendance of maybe 25 people, a group far too large for our modest facilities—much less for a season opener. More depressingly yet, the garden isn't coming in so well, which although not strictly related to the barbecue may be another indicator of a lapse in focus. The pride commeth before the fall, which is followed by scraggly cilantro.

The garden notwithstanding (and which shows signs of improvement! I think I see a 'peño!), we're only talking one barbecue—and we've definitely had good ones in the past. Nevertheless it's been a complete jolt to the senses. Thus has foolishness and hubris blinded me to the position in which I now find myself, eyes open wide, facing down fanatics maddened by the vinegar-y allure of pulled pork.

I have to cut this off at the pass: It's not something I can make. Really. I just don't know what makes for good and bad when it comes to the North Carolina style (good god, just writing the words!) pork. By which I mean both that I don't know a recipe myself (it's a baste, not a rub) but much more importantly, I don't have the foggiest notion about how to pick one. I understand it calls for mustard-based slaw—something between the sweet stuff I know and the spicy stuff from the true south. But what the hell is a mustard-based slaw? It sure doesn't sound tangy. The words don't make sense. Like paper-based oranges, or New York–based football. See what I mean? I'm feeling like anything I tried would not only be deeply frustrating to make but truly disappointing for everybody to taste.

It is, of course, incumbent on a pitmaster, if he is to live up to that mantle, to master beef, ribs, and pork, along with the sides dictated by the region to which he holds. (NB: I'm fairly certain my chosen career aspirations preclude me from ever attaining the title.) To what ends I can't say, but I'm committed to following through with this beef and ribs stage. The whispers about seder brisket—yes, I hear them—only strengthen my resolve.

Of course I'll brook most any compromise. The smoker is available for those who'd like to try; we can work out a reasonable rental rate, and I'll spend the time in the Library of Congress archives researching the arcana of gourmet practices among early German settlers in Texas. Okay, I'm half kidding here. Of course I'm not going to charge you to use the smoker.

(In all honesty: It sounds like a pain in the ass to learn how to do that sort of baste, and there are so many technical hurdles I'm still learning to overcome. I don't think pulled pork is the right option, right now. Let me instead propose a third way: we'll call it the Davenport Accord. More on that later.)


Blogger Senor Cheeseburger said...

I like to soak my steak in a garlic marinade for 1 day, and then a day in a spicy beer marinade.

Then I cook it.
Then when I sit down at the table, I look at my steak, then at my wife, then at my steak again... I wait for the anger to build and then all at once I leap up from the table, fling the plate against the wall shattering it on impact and scream "WHAT AND THE HELL IS THIS!? I WORK MY ASS OFF ALL DAY LONG AND I COME HOME TO THIS SHIT!?"

Then my wife says "Honey you cooked that yourself."

Then I reply "Darn! I almost gotcha!"

Then we laugh and laugh and laugh.

Good times.


3:21 PM  

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