ROBERT ST. JOHN: A Life of Wonderfulness


I am not a barbecue snob.

There are plenty of them out there. Barbecue has grown into quite a booming industry. Years ago there were barbecue joints in most Southern towns. I never remember hearing about a barbecue cooking competition before 1983. Maybe they were being held, but it wasn’t the beast it is today.

These days everyone is competing against each other for this barbecue title or that designation. Memphis and Kansas City seem to be the epicenters of these barbecue competitions. Cable television has gotten into the game in a big way. I respect the people who are into cooking competitions (I have several friends who are religious about it), but it’ not for me. I love to eat barbecue. I just don’t want to get all stressed out cooking by rules and time limits.

There might not be a bigger genre of the food world that draws more critique, criticisms, and opinions than barbecue. Lets get this straight from the start: I am not a barbecue expert, but I have a pretty sophisticated palate, and I know what I like. But I don’t study barbecue history and cooking techniques. So any thoughts or ruminations from this point forward are my opinion and based purely on what I like.

Here are the undeniable barbecue truths as I see them:

1.) The best barbecue comes from a smoker using real wood and no artificial fuel such as propane or natural gas. This is a biggie for me. My two go-to barbecue joints in my hometown: Leatha’s and Donanelle’s both use real wood and no artificial fuel.

2.) Just because meat on ribs is fall-off-the-bone tender doesn’t mean that it is par cooked or par boiled. Case in point – Leatha’s. I have had numerous heated email exchanges from people who claim Leatha’s par boils their ribs because the meat falls off the bone. That’s just not the case. I have walked through the entire process with the folks at Leatha’s and the ribs are fully cooked on the smoker.

That is a hard feat to accomplish. Fake ribs – ribs served at chain restaurants – are usually cooked in an Alto-Sham smoker/cooker that cooks low and slow on all six sides of the oven and makes the meat tender. You may like that. If you do, I’m not going to take offense, but to me, true ribs are cooked in a smoker without electricity or the help of artificial fuel and may, or may not, be fall-off-the-bone tender.

3.) All barbecue should be served dry. Again, this is a personal preference, but slathering sauce all over barbecue can mask a lot of mistakes in the cooking process.

4.) Liquid smoke should never be a part of the process.

5.) Beware of contrived barbecue joints with themed décor and intentionally misspelled words on the sign or menu. You might have found one that serves worthy barbecue, but I have yet to do so.

I have eaten barbecue in Mississippi, Texas, Kansas, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. I’ve had good barbecue in those states and I’ve had subpar barbecue in those states. Barbecue changes from state to state. In Texas they prefer beef. In Tennessee pork is king and the ribs are dry. In South Carolina they serve a mustard-based sauce. I didn’t grow up eating that, but I like it when I’m there. In Alabama some places serve a white barbecue sauce that is mayonnaise-based. In South Mississippi the sauce contains more sugar than in other places. I like that, too.

The degree to which vinegar and tomato dominate the sauce recipes varies from joint to joint (or in the case of Alabama and South Carolina not at all). I find most people favor the style of barbecue they grew up eating.

I like both of my go-to barbecue joints. Leatha’s serves sweet, fall-off-the-bone tender ribs and Donanelle’s serves a pecan-wood smoked variety that has a hint of heat and toothsomeness. Neither of those might be your thing. That’s OK with me, too.

In conclusion, lets just all agree to eat more barbecue. Tell the barbecue snobs to take a hike and chill out. You can compete against someone if you enjoy that kind of thing. It won’t bother me (as long as I get to eat some of it). In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the kind of barbecue sauce I like and you can enjoy the kind of barbecue sauce you like. Everyone will be happy, and as John Steinbeck once wrote, “Once again the world was spinning in greased grooves.”

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.

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