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Monday, May 29, 2006

In The Mountains, It's Barbeque!

I don’t know if anyone has ever compiled statistics on how many people commemorate summer holidays like Memorial Day with barbeque, but if the aromas wafting through my part of town are any indicator, it’s a bunch. In backyards, at parks, on lakeshores, and picnic grounds, grills are a-blazin’ and meat is a-sizzlin’. Summer is barbeque time in the mountains.

Although there are varied opinions on what constitutes real barbeque, the popularity of meat cooked with wood smoke as the main flavor ingredient continues to grow. And that’s the common ground of barbeque from any region: smoke. Smoke from smoldering wood. No smoke, no barbeque. Some use all wood for their fire, others use real charcoal made from charred wood. Most probably use charcoal briquettes with wood chips or chunks smoldering on top. Whatever the method, barbeque requires smoke.

I once ate a restaurant in Laredo, TX that was widely famous for it’s ribs. The ribs were tender, moist without being greasy, expertly seasoned, served with a delicious sauce, but didn’t have even a hint of the smoky flavor that marks true barbeque. I found out later that this restaurant used a specially made electric “barbeque” cooker. They were great ribs, but without smoke, it just wasn’t barbeque.

While smoke is the common denominator, there’s a lot of debate about which sauce is appropriate. Here in the mountains of western North Carolina, three regional preferences for sauce collide. In the eastern part of the state, a vinegar-based sauce is the norm, and many on this end of the state agree it’s the best. From nearby South Carolina, a mustard-based sauce has found its fans locally. And finally, a tomato-based sauce as is more common in Texas and Tennessee is also popular with folks around here. Many a good natured argument takes place around local grills when the subject of the best sauce comes up.

And then there’s the question of what kind of meat should be used. In Texas, barbeque means beef, and usually brisket. Memphis and Kansas City both claim their fame from pork ribs. Here in the Carolinas, pork shoulder, pulled and served on buns is what most people think of as barbeque. Why limit yourself to just one? In the mountains where I live, we enjoy them all, and also include chicken, sausage, and even fish as suitable fare for the grill.

Whatever your preference in meat may be, real barbeque involves cooking at relatively low temperatures (less than 300 degrees) for a long period of time. This “low and slow” method of cooking gives barbeque its unique flavor, and also tenderizes meats like brisket and ribs. Another benefit to this cooking method is that it provides plenty of time for folks to visit and enjoy each other’s company while the meat cooks. It affords a welcome break from the hurried and harried existence many of us live during the week. Not feeling up to having guests over? Then how about a nap, or that book you’ve been meaning to read? With barbeque, you’ve got time.

Memorial Day is about over as I write this, but it’s only the beginning of a long, summer barbeque season. Traditional holidays like July 4th, and Labor Day practically demand barbeque around here, but any weekend is a good time for some ‘que. So roll out that grill, slap on your preferred meat with your favorite sauce, and invite some friends over for a relaxing evening of food and fun. Because in the mountains, it’s barbeque!


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