As we kick off 2013, it’s an excellent time to reflect on the sorts of things that made 2012 special. Personally, one of the most gratifying and downright fun things I did was to write a series for www.foodrepublic.com which they entitled “A Year of Barbecue.” Fortunately, the series ended in December, so I have a few months to get my lipid counts down from the Mr. Creosote range before my annual visit to my internist.
During the course of the year, I made many new friends on the bbq circuit, visited restaurants and smokehouses around the South and spent several nights watching whole hogs render while merry bands of derelict pitmasters did some pretty wacky things to keep themselves entertained and awake overnight.
But the details of my exploration that I can share are gathered below. I’m very proud of this series, and my editors say that they are looking to nominate it for some journalistic awards around the country. “Journalist,” heh. That’s just because I didn’t write about watching a man pee over a truck to win a $5.00 bet. More than once…
So here are the highlights of the series, conveniently gathered in one spot for your reading pleasure:
In January, I kicked the year off with some bold proclamations and promises of what I hoped to achieve in 2012. I think we accomplished most of them.
Later in January, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Mike and Amy Mills’ BBQ IQ Whole Hog Cooking Seminar at 17th Street Bar and Grill in Murphysboro, IL. Not only did I witness whole hogs being cooked by masters of the trade and learn a great deal about the business of barbecue from legends like Sweet Baby Ray and Famous Dave, but I also developed relationships with some really exceptional people. At the very top of that list is Sam Jones from The Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC. Not only is Sam a great guy, he’s also a hilarious quote machine, and my profile of him pretty much wrote itself. I’ll take the credit for writing down his best bon mots, though.
March came in like a lion but went out like a lamb, mutton that is. I joined my good friend Thomas Williams for a mutton-fueled trip to Owensboro, KY where we sampled some of the best old sheep on earth at Old Hickory BBQ and Moonlite Bar-B-Que. While the gamey mutton meat isn’t for everyone, anyone who calls himself a barbecue aficionado needs to make this pilgrimage at least once in their life.
April’s installment focused on the ultra-competitive sauce industry, where I discovered that Sweet Baby Ray is actually a friendly middle-aged white guy from the suburbs of Chicago, not the Cosby Kid caricature I had imagined. He’s also an extremely shrewd businessman whose best advice about entering the retail sauce business is…don’t do it.
As the weather warms up, more amateur pitmasters want to get outside and start to show off their talents competitively. With Memphis in May approaching, I published a fun little competition calendar to help plan your culinary road trips.
In June, I went a little wacky. Or rather Waikiki as I explored Hawaiian barbecue. You probably don’t think of `cue when you see a pig coming out of the ground at a luau, but pork cooked over indirect heat from smoky indigenous wood sounds a lot like barbecue to me.
If you are a fan of barbecue, I cannot emphasize enough how much fun you can have at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party held each June in Madison Square Park. Expert smokers from around the country descend on the park to feed some of the best food that yankees will ever have the pleasure to enjoy. Y’know, like we can get just by driving to Nolensville any day of the week. My recap of the event and of the drive from Tennessee to NYC was one of my favorite pieces to write all year. Look for another version of the story to appear in A Taste of the South magazine this coming spring.
The heat of the summer pointed me to Texas where I took on a significant task trying to identify the best barbecue in the Lone Star State. In the end, I narrowed it to around ten joints, and I’m certain I left out some of the best. Barbecue is a cruel mistress that way.
Finding the best barbecue in Manhattan was a lot easier, since there aren’t nearly as many choices. Because my editors at Food Republic all live there, the pressure was on for me to make those sort of choices remotely. As FR’s “Southern correspondent,” they count on me to pretty much cover anything that isn’t in Manhattan or Brooklyn, but fortunately they concurred with my recommendations.
This success left me cocky enough to tackle one of the barbecue capitals of the universe, Memphis. I made no bold proclamations about the best of the Bluff City, but even bad Memphis barbecue is probably better than what passes for `cue in your hometown. The exploration of ten famous spots in one day was an experience I’ll never forget, but also probably never attempt again.
As if gorging myself in Memphis wasn’t enough, in November I described what it’s like to judge at the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitation Barbecue competition. Consider that taking just a small bite of everything offered for your deliberation adds up to over two pounds of food consumed and you’ll get an idea of what it’s like. Which is to say…awesome!
I finished off the year by sharing the wisdom and talents of three different masters of the whole hog, Sam Jones, Rodney Scott of Scott’s BBQ and Food Network’s culinary Mr. Wizard, Alton Brown. While their techniques and advice were very different, all three certainly know their way around a pig. (Which is really not that far considering that you have already cut the pig in half.)
So there it is in a nutshell. Would I do it again? Absolutely! But luckily I’m certain that the relationships I made this year will ensure that the study of great barbecue will be a lifelong pursuit.