Briskets, shoulders and ribs: It’s all about the smoke

June 15, 2011
Can’t come to the smoke? 'Ol’ Hickory' will bring the smoke to you. BY BETHANY BLUES PHOTO

It probably started in the Caribbean and the West Indies. Travelers to the New World reported that the inhabitants were sun-drying meat and using smoldering fires to keep the bugs away. The smoke acted as a preservative and, coincidentally, made the meat taste good.

In the modern days of the late 1700s, celebrations would often center on an activity called “barbecue.” Webers, briquettes and Bobby Flays had not yet been invented, so whole animals were slowly roasted atop an earthen pit brimming with glowing logs. Every time they wanted to smoke meat, they had to dig a big hole, then find a way to keep everybody busy for the next 12 hours. History concludes that this eventually became tiresome. It’s no wonder that visitors to 18th century America described barbecue as a “large party that generally ended in intoxication.”

The era of the Webers and Flays is now upon us, and we no longer have to dig pits all over the place. Yes, we’ve come a long way, but not surprisingly, the above-quoted definition of barbecue still remains remarkably accurate.

My barbecue restaurant was built around two gigantic Southern Pride woodsmokers that burned fireplace-size hickory logs. Each pit (they still call them pits) could hold 1,500 pounds of pork, or depending on the day, 120 racks of baby back ribs, almost 900 pounds of beef brisket or 700 pounds of chicken. Now there's a barbecue!

Without smoke, a brisket is just a roast; a pork shoulder is just a funny-looking ham and a chicken is … well, just a chicken. When I escaped from, uh, I mean … left … the restaurant business, I still had a taste for good barbecue. Some of the best I’ve found here at the beach is at Bethany Blues in Lewes.

These guys are no strangers to the art and science of glowing hickory. All styles of smoked meat can be found basking over those smoldering chunks of flavor. Though the cooking techniques are similar across the country, regional differences center mostly on the sauce. Eastern Carolina is known for its vinegar and pepper blend. Some add brown sugar, red pepper flakes, molasses, butter and even mustard. Throw in some ketchup, and all of a sudden you’re in Western Carolina. Bethany Blues’ Carolina vinegar/pepper sauce goes all-out with brown sugar, mustard and butter.

Move toward the south, and the red sauces rule. Memphis style starts with a tomato base that turns darkly sweet when molasses, brown sugar, and maybe orange juice, onions, garlic and cinnamon are added. Of course, all that goodness has to be slathered on something. Bethany Blues affectionately nicknamed its Southern Pride smokers “Crocket & Tubbs.” Mine were nicknamed “Bank Loan #1” and “Bank Loan #2.”

Bethany Blues can even bring the smoke to you. “Ol’ Hickory” is an all-inclusive wood pit assembled in Cape Giradeau, Mo., complete with trailer, hubcaps, brake lights and a license plate. It’s a hit with the carnivores at picnics, fairs and festivals.

Bethany Blues’ original location in Bethany Beach is built around “Li’l Reggie” (these guys love to name things). Far from being “Li’l,” Reginald is a huge J&R Oyler pit, hand-crafted in Mesquite, Texas. He does his thing with motorized dampers that keep the fire alive and the meat sizzlin’.

Traditional pork barbecue is almost always from the shoulder. Depending on where you are on the map, it’s either chopped, sliced or pulled off the bone. Ribs can be the full St. Louis cut (the traditional spare rib), or trimmed lengthwise to make baby backs. Say, “’Cue me!” in Texas and you’ll end up with beef brisket - shredded, sliced or chopped. And don’t forget the chicken: Our boys in Lewes cook quarters and parts until the skin is golden brown and the meat falls off the bone.

Backyard grilling over flaming coals is OK, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s all about the smoke. Low temperatures, lots of time (mine cook for 12 hours), and an ample supply of icy cold beer can help ensure that we remain faithful to that 18th century definition of “barbecue” quoted above.

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    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.