smoked brisket

We all know not to bring up religion or politics in polite conversation, if there is still such a thing. And maybe it’s now wise not to bring up Greenland. Or the border wall. Probably should stay away from detention centers, plastic straws, Muslims, Evangelical Christians, Israel, the Raiders, guns...geez—who are we?

But that stuff is mild. Let the b-word slip out and, well, a few f-words are bound to follow.

The b-word in this case is “barbecue,” a form of cooking so popular throughout the country that pitmaster competitions are televised. Indeed, fans travel to bucket list restaurants that often look like run down shacks or greasy spoon diners from the outside: Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas. Rendezvous or A&R Bar-B-Q in Memphis, Joe’s in Kansas City. Hell, just list a restaurant’s name and a good percentage of people can name its location without the aid of Google.

Try mentioning Franklin Barbecue, Sweatman’s Barbecue, Arthur Bryant’s, Jackie Hite’s Bar-B-Q or Big Bob Gibson’s to friends in the know.

Clancy Ryan, a pitmaster at 101 Wine Press in Prunedale is eager to hit the nationwide barbecue trail. “I’m a fan of smoke,” he says.

So how come smoking meat is such a volatile issue?

Jose Luis Luna, a cook at Salinas City BBQ in Salinas likes to trim the burnt ends from brisket to snack on. “To hell with the health of it if it tastes that good,” he blurts with enthusiasm. Otherwise, Luna says he’s a fan of Texas style barbecue. Burnt ends? That’s a Kansas City thing.

Pitmaster “Big Mike” Lipscomb at Big Sur Smokehouse (yes, in Big Sur) prepares brisket Texas style beef and pork along Carolina guidelines. But, he adds, “I like my ribs saucy, so Kansas City style.”

Yep, style is everything. And the various regional styles that represent barbecue in the U.S. have zealous defenders. Take this relatively tame commentary from Dan Gentile, writing for Thrillist, as an example: “You know when you’re wearing your cool new sneakers and you step in a giant puddle of mud? And then you have to eat all the mud to get your sneakers clean? Of course you don’t. Only an idiot would know what that’s like. Just like only an idiot would purposely dunk his brisket into a puddle of putrid barbecue sauce.”

Give him credit for treading lightly. Several years ago in Texas a man shot down a couple of neighbors who had the audacity to serve him a cold piece of chicken. If this were just a church basement potluck, the incident would not have resulted in bloodshed. But this was a neighborhood barbecue, so bare knuckle fighting—and then gunfire—broke out. A 2015 family barbecue in Indiana turned ugly when a friend reached for the last rib. What happened next? One person stabbed another in the eye with a fork.

Ooh—one more. How about the time at a barbecue festival in Kentucky when a pitmaster hurled a whole honking brisket at another competitor, but hit an innocent bystander instead?

See, it’s true. Guns don’t kill people, grilling kills people. And if you happen to insert the word “grilling” into a conversation about barbecue, it could also lead to dire consequences.

For the record, grilling is cooking quickly over high heat. Barbecue involves smoke, low temperatures and vast amounts of time. Proper brisket, for instance, requires up to 20 hours before it’s ready for the plate.

It seems any mention of anything related to cooking with fire and smoke could turn deadly. But why?

Depending upon just who creates the list, there are five or more major barbecue styles in the U.S., along with several with more local followings, such as California’s Santa Maria style tri-tip. Texas—more properly a swath of central Texas—style is famed for brisket. Fans of Memphis style laud the ribs. In North and South Carolina it’s all about pork. For people in Kansas City, the sauce is the thing. And even when a region specializes in one type of meat, it’s possible to order the others.

There’s something for everyone—so you’d think it would be all good. Sure. Just try dumping sauce on slices of brisket at Smitty’s Market in Lockhart. You can’t. They don’t stock the stuff. And if you bring your own...well, someone might eventually notify your next of kin. Go into Arthur Bryant’s and say “can I have it without sauce? Not a big fan.” You’ll probably live. Midwesterners aren’t as quick to the draw as Texans, but they can glare with the best of them.

Might see some irate finger-tapping, too.

Maybe a quick romp through some of the basics will give us some guidance. Texas style favors a simple presentation involving salt, pepper and smoke. Aficionados prize the pitch-black bark and pink smoke ring scored into brisket. The thick, sappy, stuff colloquially known as barbecue sauce began in Kansas City, and the houses there take great pride in their versions. Memphis is a little more diplomatic. Although the emphasis is on secret spice rub, often created with dozens of ingredients, guests can order ribs dry (just the rub) or wet (mopped with generally a tomato and vinegar baste).

However, the sauce or no sauce spat is just one cause of barbecue friction. In North Carolina people go all Hatfield and McCoy over ketchup. While both sides use pork, to the east of U.S. Highway 1, it’s whole hog and the dressing is composed from cider vinegar and some form of spicy heat—or Carolina style. On the western front, pureed tomato is added and referred to as a dip. And pitmasters just use the shoulder for their pulled pork. That’s Lexington style.

Head to South Carolina and things get even more confusing. First, they add a heaping portion of mustard to the pork to make what is generally considered South Carolina style. But in some parts of the state you find tomatoes, ketchup or a pepper sauce as the base.

In Alabama there’s a white sauce—seems fitting in the state of Roy Moore—emphasizing mayonnaise.

Got it? And we’re going to skip over St. Louis, Mississippi, Kentucky’s mutton, the unclassified style some place in Virginia and others in the northern corner of North Carolina and all the rest.

Political scientists have it easy. It’s just red state or blue state. Maybe a few purples, too. Those who study the culinary map need that Crayola Box of 64.

Oh, but it goes deeper. There’s a South Carolina Barbecue Association, a Memphis Barbeque Network, a North Carolina Barbecue Society, a Kansas City Barbeque Society, several organizations in Texas (some using BBQ)—even a hall of fame. As you can see, they can’t even agree on spelling.

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OK—we’ve gotten this far and still haven’t addressed the Burning Question. Can there really be a best? Earlier this year, Far and Wide put together a panel to determine as much. They ranked Texas as number one, followed by North Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis, Alabama and South Carolina. But their unscientific tally lumped the North Carolinas together. And they left out the others.

Scanning the internet only makes things worse. One site assures us that Google named North Carolina as the “barbecue capital of the nation,” but that site is the North Carolina Barbecue Society. On another, they point out Food Network’s affinity for K.C.—not the Sunshine Band—and quote an expert saying “We didn’t invent barbecue, we perfected it.” But that expert is from Joe’s in Kansas City. During an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations a man declares that South Carolina is “absolutely” the world’s barbecue capital. Naturally that guy was the South Carolina Barbecue Association president.

A James Beard Award went to the pitmaster at Scott’s BBQ in South Carolina. Southern Living placed Scott’s at the top of their list of best barbecue restaurants in the south. But Franklin Barbecue in Texas has often been praised as the nation’s best.

Hell, people used to sell places in line outside of Franklin Barbecue until the pitmaster put a stop to the practice.

And then there’s the episode of Master of None, when Aziz Ansari’s character falls so hard for Alabama white sauce he skips a flight back to New York—kinda putting a culinary spin on Sweet Home Alabama.

And let’s not forget that errant Yelp “survey” that laid the barbecue prize on Prunedale Market.

“If I asked around the kitchen, everyone would have a different favorite,” Salinas City BBQ’s Luna observes.

Maybe by staying out of the fray, California has an advantage—perhaps not in barbecue, but in the lack of meat-related violence. Salinas City BBQ is a hybrid style, drawing from across the nation. It’s the same at many of the other joints around the county.

“I have my own style,” says Lipscomb at Big Sur Smokehouse. “I take a little bit from all.”

So the best response to this week’s Burning Question comes from Ryan at 101 Wine Press.

“Unless it’s overcooked, there is no bad barbecue,” he points out.

Yes, a cop out. But it’s better than a fork in the eye.

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