Although I have been eating it as long as I can remember, I did not hear the words “pulled pork” until I was 44 years old and living in Alaska.
To me it was always and only barbecue. Put it on a bun, eat it chopped, sliced, or pulled, it is barbecue. When I say barbecue I mean one of two things: smoked pork butts, or a slow cooked whole pig. (Pork butts, by the way, are the front quarters of the pig. The back quarters are hams.) When it is a whole pig, you invite loads of friends and neighbors, and that is called a Pig Pickin’.
(I am well aware that people in other regions of the country have different ideas about what constitutes “true barbecue.” In Texas it is beef, which I will admit is delicious. In Alabama they do chicken in a white sauce–also good. But I am at heart a Carolina boy, so for me, ‘cue is always pork.)
I grew up around some the best barbecue joints in North Carolina. i never appreciated what a treasure trove of porcine deliciousness I had in my own back yard until I moved away.
There is barbecued chicken, and barbecued beef and barbecue sauces, but in those cases barbecue is an adjective. When it is a noun, it is the stuff of pig cooked over low heat for a long time.
I was visiting some friends in Los Angeles (only my second time out of the South for any length of time), and the person I was staying with suggested we do a barbecue. I knew that smokers were in short supply, so the odds of making actual barbecue were pretty slim, but I figured we could do some chicken, and I jumped on the idea. Not barbecue, but close enough. “That sounds great! I’ll make my special sauce, and we can do chicken, because, well, barbecue takes more time than we have, and I can make some cole slaw (the red kind, not that generic mayonnaise based stuff) and I’m pretty sure we can jury rig the grill to do indirect heat so we can slow cook the chicken and….” My friend was looking at me like I started scat singing. She had no idea what I was talking about.
“A barbecue,” she said, a phrase I was unfamiliar with, “you know, hot dogs and hamburgers.”
That is a cook out, not “a barbecue.” You don’t have “a barbecue.” Remember, when barbecue is a noun, it is a piquant pork dish of unparalleled deliciousness. You can barbecue as a verb—hence the chicken and the beef. But when you are cooking hot dogs and hamburgers outside over a fire, that is grilling.
Some people cook pork in crock pot, drown it in a sauce and call it barbecue.
If you need to put sauce on it, it is not good barbecue. The best barbecue can be eaten as is—it does not need to be drowned in sauce any more than a good steak needs to be drowned in ketchup. Sure, some people may prefer a little sauce with their pig, or a little A1 on their rib eye. Nothing wrong with that. But the sauce doesn’t make it barbecue any more than the A1 makes a sirloin a ribeye.
In our household we believe in the division of labor. I do the barbecue, the ribs and the chicken, while the Redhead does the brisket, and I get to do the smoking. We divide the labor by enjoyment. For me the zen of barbecue is the process. Usually I make pounds and pounds of barbecue, and then serve it to others. For the Redhead the zen of barbecue is the meat.
Sometimes I get carried away, and start dreaming of starting a BBQ joint of my own. I see myself standing among hordes of people eating my delicious food. I go from table to table, and people tell me how good it is. I’m like Rick in Casablanca, which was originally called, “Everyone Goes to Rick’s.” I might even buy a white dinner jacket. When I have those thoughts the Redhead reminds me of the BBQ guy I would see on my way to work everyday. He sat perched beside the huge smoker, and I know he started the day at 4:00 am, and that he did that every day, without a break. There was nothing in his face that led me to believe he was enjoying it.
That’s how we generally divide the labor in our household. I dream, and she is the realist.
My favorite BBQ story is the guy who asked if he could work with the one of the Q Masters. The Q Master told him to come early on Saturday, and when he got there, he was told to sit on a stump in the middle of the yard and watch everything. He took out his notebook, sat, watched and wrote. At the end of the day the Q Master asked what he had learned. He took out his notebook and started reading his notes. “The chicken goes in 20 minutes after the fire is started, and cooks for one and half hours. The pig is…” At that point the Q Master took his notebook and threw it in the fire.
“I told you to watch, not write,” he said. “You don’t need a laundry list telling you what to do. Just sit on the stump and listen. The chickens will whisper to you hen they need to be flipped. The pork will sing when it is finished cooking. The fire will wink at you when another log is needed. No list, no clock, no thermometer can tell you how to cook barbecue. You sit in the corner, and you just know.”
I am not there yet. I still listen to the themometer. But I am getting better.
I love the process, from buying the meat to preparing it to smoking it to pulling and serving it.
I used to get up early on Saturdays, prepare the meat–always pork butts. I put on the rub. I inject them with my secret injection sauce. I let the preparations do their magic while I start the fire. I have heard that some people smoke meat using a gas grill, but that makes no sense to me. The joy of cooking is the fire. I pour a ring of charcoal in the fire pit, fill the chimney with charcoal, and light that using two full sheets of newsprint. I have not bought lighter fluid in 25 years. You know that keroseny smell you get when you use lighter fluid? That is what gets in your meat.
Little things make it better. I grow and smoke my own paprika for the rub, and this year I will using my own cayenne pepper as well. I can be hard on my tools. I go through three or four injection needles a season. I used to go through thermometers like that, but the Redhead gave a me a fancy one, with blue tooth so I can check the temps on my phone while I am smoking. (So much for listening to the meat.)
I used to have a barrel smoker, the kind where the barrel is on its side with the firebox beside. I had to keep a close eye on the temps with that smoker. One side is always hotter than the other, so I had to have a different thermometer for each side, and frequently move the meat from one side to the other. It was drafty. The metal was thin, and there was no real seal to it. Smoke poured out all the edges. The fire took a lot of tending. A lot.
When I moved to Oregon I got a new smoker, leaving my old one to a BBQ buddy in Alaska. The new one is an upright barrel, and holds the heat. I can start the fire and go back to bed for a while, knowing that when I get up, the temps will still be in the 225-250 range. Maybe its not as fun as the old one, but I get more sleep.
It takes 14 to 16 hours to get the pork butts to the right temps. One hundred and ninety degrees. Any cooler, and it won’t pull. Much warmer and it drys out. The last three hours are the hardest. It smells like barbecue, but I know it is not ready. The temp tends to stall when it gets to 170 degrees and it can stay there for a long time. (The dreaded stall is when the juices in the act as a temperature stabilizer, and the meat gets stuck. Some people, when they hit the stall use a Texas Crutch—wrapping the meat the aluminum foil for the last bit. I only use the crutch when I am on a deadline.)
Making barbecue is an activity of leisure. There are sporadic bursts of action, punctuated by long hours of watching. I prepare the meat, start the fire, put the meat in the smoker, check the temps, wait, check the temps, put some hickory wood on the fire, and wait. And wait.
Around noon I will light up the first cigar, and around two I’ll crack open the first beer. And I’ll check the temps again, put more wood on, rake the ashes out of the grate, and wait. Another cigar. Put more charcoal in the chimney and add it to the fire. Wait. Another beer, and cigar. Wait. Read a bit maybe.
Around four the first friends will have smelled the smoke and will start congregating in our yard. More beer, another cigar, and check the fire again. The meat is slowly cooking and is running around 150 now. I wait. Then stoke the fire a little add some more hickory and wait. By now the yard is full of friends and some are starting to ask when it will be done. “When it’s done,” is all I can say, not knowing if this will be a 14 hour or 16 smoke.
More friends, another cigar. The temps hit 170, and I swear some of our friends seem to be drooling. The Redhead is making potato salad, and we throw some corn on a grill. More friends and more beers. The meat has stalled, so we all wait. I am tempted to stoke up the fire and get the temps up to 275, maybe even 300, but I know that is a mistake. My friends will just have to wait. And wait. We talk, and wait.
The meat moves out of the stall, and is now running 180, then 182 then 185. It is close and I feel like it should be done in the next five minutes, but in fact we still have at least a half hour to go. The thermometer starts to beep, warning me it is about time. We wait some more. Just a little while longer, I tell my friends.
And then, the magic happens. The thermometer beeps, telling me it is done. I take the meat inside, pull the butts with the steel bear claws I bought just for this purpose, and the Redhead starts taking it outside.
Let the feast begin!