It all comes down to the sauce!

August 12, 2021

With the proliferation of BBQ spots here in Delmarva, more and more people are asking about the variations in styles, tastes and textures. Is it Memphis style? Carolina (eastern or western)? Texas style? Pulled? Shredded? Sliced? Let’s face it: So much pork, beef and chicken – but so little time!

Without smoke, a brisket is just a roast; a pork shoulder is just a strange ham and a chicken is … well, just a chicken. But add smoke, some patience and a few hush-hush techniques, and all of a sudden you have BBQ. Some of the best I’ve found here at the beach is dished up at Bethany Blues, in Lewes and in Bethany Beach.

But first, a bit of history: In the late 1700s, outdoor celebrations in the Caribbean and the West Indies often centered on an activity called “barbecue,” where whole animals were slowly roasted atop an earthen pit lined with glowing-hot logs. This tasted good, dried out the meat so it would last longer, and kept insects at bay. History also concluded that all this pit digging became tiresome, and it’s no surprise that visitors to 18th century America began to describe “barbecue” as a “large party that generally ended in intoxication.”

My most recent restaurant before I moved here over 20 years ago was a BBQ joint. We had hickory smokers and took the process very seriously. The pitmasters at Bethany Blues Lewes and Bethany Beach are also no strangers to the art and science of glowing hickory, and regional differences cited above center mostly on the sauce. Eastern Carolina is known for its vinegar and pepper blend. Add brown sugar, red pepper flakes, molasses, butter, mustard and maybe 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 with molasses, brown sugar, and maybe orange juice, onions, garlic and a pinch of cinnamon. Of course, all that goodness has to be slathered on something smoky. Bethany Blues’ smokers, affectionately named Crocket & Tubbs in Lewes and Li’l Reggie in Bethany (who recently survived a critical repair operation – he came out smokin’!), use motorized dampers that keep the logs glowing and the meat sizzlin’ at the perfect temperature.

Bethany Blues can even bring the smoke to you. Their huge Ole Hickory smoker is an all-inclusive wood pit assembled in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, complete with trailer, hubcaps, brake lights and a license plate. It’s a hit with carnivores at picnics, fairs, festivals and food truck events.

Traditional pork barbecue is almost always from the shoulder. The fat content of that cut negates the drying effect of the smoke. 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, lovingly smoked until the skin is golden brown and the aromatic 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, 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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