Smoke and flames make for good beach eats

June 7, 2019

In the world of carnivorous pursuits, without smoke or lazy flames, a cut of beef is just a roast; a pork shoulder is just a boney ham and a chicken is … well, just a chicken. But add smoke or fire from glowing hardwoods like hickory, oak and apple, and magic happens. Slather somebody’s closely guarded secret sauce on top, and that’s nirvana for meat lovers.

In the pre-refrigeration days of the late 1700s, celebrations would often center on an activity called “barbecue,” where whole animals were slowly roasted atop a smoke-filled earthen pit. The process was fairly tiresome: Every time they wanted to smoke meat, they had to dig a big hole and find a way to keep everybody busy for the next 12 hours. It’s no wonder that visitors to 18th century America described barbecue as a “large party that generally ended in intoxication.” We no longer have to dig pits all over the place, but not surprisingly, the second half of that definition remains remarkably accurate.

All styles of smoked meats can be found basking in smokers the size of a Prius. Cooking techniques are similar across the country: Long cooking times at low temperatures. Regional differences center mostly on the sauce and when it is applied. 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 take over. Denizens of Memphis start with a tomato base that turns darkly fragrant when molasses, brown sugar, and maybe orange juice, onions and garlic are added. One of the most consistent spots here at the beach for traditional, slow-smoked goodies and a variety of tasty sauces is Bethany Blues. I love the pulled pork sandwich, dished up on the perfect roll. Add slaw (a must in Memphis) and a couple of crunchy pickles for good measure.

But sometimes it’s not all about smoke. New kids in town Gary and Chris Desch recently opened their Chaps Pit Beef franchise in the building they share with Iron Hill Brewery. Chaps is a Baltimore favorite (we also loved The Canopy Pit Beef and Pioneer Pit Beef when we lived in Columbia, Md.). So how is pit beef different from the smoked-low-and-slow traditional BBQ?  Pit cooking generally involves premium beef bottom-round roasts - or hams, or turkey breasts or brightly spiced sausages - placed directly over a slowly smoldering fire, where flames occasionally contact the meats, producing a dark and crunchy coating that is prized by meat lovers as “burnt ends.” Carnivores have been known to arm wrestle over who gets the burnt ends. Since it’s only on the surface of the meat, there’s only so much to go around.

Chaps provides the obligatory sauces, pickles and a mild hot sauce, but pit purists insist on fresh horseradish and crunchy raw onions on their beef sandwich. Often with a few burnt ends as crunchy little exclamation marks. The new – and very reasonably priced - Chaps is doing very well with lots of parking, a full bar with a selection of drafts and very friendly employees.

Chaps also serves a pork barbecue - not “pulled” Bethany Blues-style, but actually shredded with a bit of sauce. Both the pulled and the shredded versions come from the shoulder (aka, Boston butt or just the butt). The high fat content and multiple bones bring extra flavor to the tender meat. Depending on where you are on the map, you’ll get it chopped/shredded (like Chaps) or sliced/pulled off the bone in chunks a la Bethany Blues.

This is Delaware – Sussex County, yet. My friend Hari Cameron describes it as “the state where there are more chickens than people.” So the chickens have to get into the act. Our boys at B’Blues in Lewes smoke quarters until the skin is a crispy golden brown and the meat falls off the bone. They can be served whole, or shredded on a soft bun.

The Baltimore-flavored Chaps uses a slightly bigger bird: Turkey breasts are roasted over the licking flames and then cut paper thin for sandwiches. One of my favorites at Chaps is the pit turkey/ham combo sandwich. I add pickles, a bit of BBQ sauce, some mild Texas Pete hot sauce, and I’m good to go. Oh, and a nice local draft. Ice cold.

Backyard grilling is OK, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s all about the wood, the flames or the smoke. Low temperatures, lots of time, and an ample supply of icy cold beverages can help ensure that the aforementioned 18th Century definition of “barbecue” remains historically accurate.

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