Barbecue, in the southern and Midwest parts of the United States, consists of slow-cooking meat over indirect heat. Chicken, beef, pork, sausage, ham, and ribs can all be barbecued – even mutton is sometimes barbecued, at least in Kentucky. With so many ways to make so many dishes, the perfect way to make barbecued meat can be a regional “bone” of contention.
In Memphis, Tennessee, barbecue is almost a religion. Barbecue ribs – most often pork, are cooked for long hours, until the meat is so tender that it is ready to fall off the bone. The city bills itself as the pork barbecue capital of the world, and has over one hundred barbecue restraints to back up that claim, many of whom participate in the annual pork cook off that is listen the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest pork barbecue contest anywhere.
The contest, part of the celebration called “Memphis in May”, draws some 90,000 cooks and spectators. Competitors come from fifty smaller cook offs sponsored by the main contest. It even runs a series of training seminars for potential barbecue judges. Good barbecue, they say, is all about being tender, without being too mushy, and being smoky, without being overpowering.
Ribs commonly come “wet,” that is, with barbecue sauce of some kind, usually mild and sweet in Memphis and basted on before and after cooking, or “dry,” with a dry rub of herbs and spices that is applied during or right after cooking. Regardless of which style is favored, the taste of the meat should come through – this is what separates good barbecue from something lathered with barbecue sauce and put in the oven for a few hours.
In Missouri, there is not one, but two predominant styles of barbecue, both of which favor beef, which is not surprising given the history of both Kansas City and St. Louis as “cattle towns.” They share a tomato-based sauce that is added after cooking, and can be replicated by mixing ketchup, brown sugar, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce. Interestingly, Missouri’s Ozarks are the source of almost half of the charcoal briquettes produced in the United States.
Kansas City, like Memphis, has a large number of barbecue restaurants and hosts several annual competitions. However, it is particularly famous for its sauces, which are thick, rich, tangy, and spicy. The sauce is basted on during the last few moments of cooking, and more can be added thereafter. Dry rub, too, is common on Kansas City style barbecue.
In St. Louis style barbecue, ribs are the flagship dish. These famous spare ribs are a rack of ribs with the chine bone and brisket bone removed. They are cooked with a sauce that is less vinegary, tangier and thinner than its cross-state equivalent, closer, in fact, to that served in Memphis.
Whether sweet or spicy, dry or wet, slow cooked or grilled over an open flame, barbecue is one of the most diverse of all American foods, and one to which many cities lay claim. Each has its own unique character, so get some bread and crackers, or some coleslaw, or even beans, (all traditional barbecue side dishes) and give them a try.
Author Jasmeet Kahlon