Celebrating Barbecue: The Ultimate Guide to America's 4 Regional Styles of Cue Review
By Dotty Griffith
Dotty Griffith, author of "Celebrating Barbecue," apparently knew what she was letting herself in for when she set out to write a definitive book about America's four principal regional styles of barbecue - Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City and Texas.
Griffith is the dining editor and restaurant critic for The Dallas Morning News and a veteran competition barbecue judge. That experience, plus an open mind and a lot of research, produced the kind of credibility (not to mention nerve) it takes to sign one's name to a work about a subject that can excite so many passions. Griffith writes:
Researching barbecue is like herding cats. There are so many theories, so many sources, that it's hard to get the subject under control. For every rule there are fourteen exceptions. For every "thou shalt," there are six "thou shalt nots" . . . except when this happens or in case that happens.
That's really why I wrote this book. While trying to find out about regional barbecue styles for another writing project, I couldn't find a source that compared, contrasted, and attempted to codify the subject. The subject defies codifying. Even harder than herding cats, reducing barbecue to a set of specifications is like teaching a cat to bark. The task contradicts the nature of the art form. Still, if art historians can do it for Impressionism, I'm willing to give it a try for barbecue.
American history has shaped barbecue in the US (although some might argue that it's the other way around), and that's where the discussion begins: North Carolina in the 1600's, where hogs were plentiful and salt was not. "Of necessity," Griffith tells us "early North Carolinians had to cook - and eat - the whole thing, lest it go to waste." What follows is the section on Carolina barbecue.
Each region's section starts with a menu for a barbecue plate, and continues with a discussion of that region (including differences within the region), a listing of legendary barbecue restaurants and, of course, the recipes.
"Celebrating Barbecue" includes many recipes for breads, salads, sides and desserts (more about these later), but the actual barbecue recipes are detailed and exact as to both ingredients and technique, each with its own rescue method, or "Fail-Safe Technique." For instance, if your Memphis-Style Barbecued Pork Shoulder is getting too brown, "remove it from the cooker and wrap in a double thickness of aluminum foil. Roast in a 300F degree oven until tender."
The Carolina section presents the Carolina-style barbecue mainstay, Pork Shoulder, with no less than six takes on Carolina-style barbecue sauce dip (table sauce).
In addition to a thorough treatment of Wet Ribs and Dry Ribs, the Memphis section contains a recipe that many pit purists would regard as having no place in a book about authentic barbecue -- Oven-Smoked Baby Back Ribs. These ribs, however, sound wonderful, and I am here to report that their smokiness is provided by actual hickory or oak wood chips, not liquid smoke.
Texas barbecue is well represented, and includes not only the signature Beef Brisket, but Smoky Texas Ribs, Barbecued Sausage and South Texas Cabrito, with appropriate rubs, mops and sauces, as well.
The Kansas City section ("Kansas City is the Constantinople of barbecue, where the pork tradition of the South meets head-on the beef tradition of Texas.") includes treatments for ribs and brisket, together with Paul Kirk's basic rub, and his famous Kansas City Barbecue Sauce.
Sauces, Mops, Dips and Rubs
You will find recipes for all the many sauces, mops, dips and rubs that you would expect. But you'll also find a discussion of Memphis-Style Wet Ribs versus Dry Ribs, with recipes for each. Ms. Griffith even discusses the relative differences among regional side dishes like coleslaw, potato salad and beans, recipes included, of course. And before I go on to the side dishes, I must spotlight something that Ms. Griffith says so well:
A point of clarification: This book is about barbecue - long, slow cooking over low temperatures - not grilling, which is fast cooking over high heat. Sometimes grilling is used to finish or glaze barbecue, but virtually everything in this book takes hours, not minutes. In general, to barbecue means to cook directly over or beside coals at a temperature of 212F degrees to 300F degrees. Sometimes the temperature inside the cooker may go a bit higher. No problem as long as it comes back down. A bit lower? No problem if not for too long.
In a chapter entitled Wild Cards, Ms. Griffith fills in a few gaps with mini-regional specialties from Santa Maria, California, and Owensboro, Kentucky. This section also addresses barbecued chicken (halves, quarters or whole) and whole fish.
There are many delightful recipes to be found among the side items. I was especially impressed with the Beef or Chicken Bites, delicious little marinated bits that can be grilled and eaten while everyone is impatiently awaiting the slow-cooking barbecue. Also notable is the recipe for Caramelized Onions.
The chapter on desserts, Sweet Endings, contains a really nice assortment of pies (Peach Cream, Sweet Potato, Vinegar, Lemon Chess and Chocolate Fudge) that any barbecue joint would be proud to serve, together with Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream, Banana Pudding, Peach Cobbler and Fried Fruit Pies. But my personal favorite has to be the Devil's Food Cake with Milk Chocolate Frosting.
Ms. Griffith's source section is a treasure trove for the serious barbecue fan. Listed are the major barbecue associations, major barbecue competitions throughout the country, arranged by month, classes for both judging and cooking barbecue competitively, barbecue publications, sources for seasonings, sauces and equipment, and online sources.
Aside from knowing her stuff, Ms. Griffith is a very good writer. "Celebrating Barbecue" is much more than a cookbook. It's a valuable resource, chuck full of great recipes and barbecue tips, which just happens to be a very pleasant read.
The cats are in the pen, and they're barking.