Traveling west between Nashville and Memphis, across the rhinestone buckle of the Bible Belt, I headed deeper into the South’s other and equally worshipped belt—that of barbecue. Every few miles, advertisements for pulled-pork sandwiches shared billboard space with promises of salvation from ministers who looked as if they should be presiding over a congregation of used-car salesmen, not sinners. Stapled to telephone poles were handmade signs with the letters “BBQ” and a hastily drawn arrow underneath.
Few things other than barbecue could wrench me from the familiar comfort of my air-conditioned New York apartment and drop me into western Tennessee, especially in the torpid heat of late June. It wasn’t because of any abiding love for the food, but rather because of a colossal, unmitigated lack of understanding. Having been raised in New England during the culinarily unenlightened ’60s, I took anything my father put on our hibachi to be barbecue. Steak? Yep. Hot dogs? Certainly. And while you’re at it, why not grilled cheese made with Velveeta? But later, as the cult of pork crept north, I found myself at swank eateries downing Kansas-, Texas-, and Memphis-style barbecue, and I was none the wiser. It seems no two people who have ever huddled over a pit have agreed upon what animal to cook, how to cook it, whether to sauce it, or when to season it. There isn’t a technique that confounds me more, and, considering how barbecue is suddenly the food of the moment, I figured I needed to learn more.
I contacted my friend southern food writer John T. Edge, a short, wiry man whose face has the scrubbed shine of a just-opened lichee nut, and asked him where I could go to learn about barbecue firsthand. Read more »