Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The psycology and subjectivity of barbecue.

There's the traditional "Here Comes Barbecue Contest Weekend" debate going on over at The Commercial Appeal's Whining & Dining blog--but there's a particular note about Memphis being represented by Leonard's in a list of the best barbecue in the nation by one Paul Kirk, the self-appointed "KC Baron of Barbecue." I thought I'd take a moment to make some notes and help you understand where my tastes run, so you can compare and contrast your own.

Barbecue is a quintessential comfort food--it's borne out of poverty, generally using the cheapest cuts of the most available animal and cooking it in a method that would make otherwise inedible (too much gristle, too many bones) parts of the pig or cow or sheep succulent and delicious. As such, your tastes will run to where you were raised, and a sample of barbecue that tastes like childhood will trigger an emotional response (several readers will be having Rattatouille flashbacks at this point. That film actually did an admirable job of conveying precisely the visceral reaction to comfort food, as prepared by vermin). If you were raised in Texas or Kansas City (as I presume Paul Kirk was), you are hard-wired to love brisket, which I generally like, but won't make a special trip to sample.

Good barbecue will transport you to your grandparents' backyard, sitting in a lawn chair with the rest of your family, watching a pit cooking on a warm summer night while people told stories, or to a family reunion having that certain variety of creamed corn that you can really only find at family reunions and church potlucks (although the corn pudding at The Cupboard comes close). I get the same reaction from a certain brand of sausage, or italian-style green beans cooked to death, or proper fried chicken. Done properly, it will trigger memories of when times were easier; because in theory the grown-ups took care of everything bad in life.

Naturally, this means that "Certified Barbecue Judges" and "Barbecue Judging Schools" are pure hokum, because they base their "objective" criteria about what makes good barbecue on one person's subjective set of memories--and that person probably died of coronary failure some time ago. Barbecue is good because it tastes good--because it takes the smoke from that backyard fire and the sweet & sour of pickle vinegar and a bottle of Kraft barbecue sauce, if that was the combination that did it for you and your family. A robot can cook barbecue to proper "judging" specifications, but only a precious few of us were raised by a family of barbecue-cooking robots--for the rest of us, it's ribs over charcoal, or brisket over mesquite, or saffron-infused coffee-glazed shoulder, if your family didn't get the memo--BUT THAT'S STILL RIGHT FOR YOU.

For me, there will be wood smoke--hickory, pecan, oak--because that's what grew in my grandparents' back yard. The sauce will likely be doctored supermarket sauce, and there's a good chance that some of the tougher cuts of meat will have been braised after their initial searing. Translating that into a sandwich, I look for something that's a little (but not overwhelmingly) smoky, with a bit of sweet and a lot of sour to the sauce. Since I wasn't raised in Memphis, slaw on the sandwich has been an acquired taste, but in most places around town it's a necessity to balance out either the sweetness or the hotness (or, on some less-auspicious occasions, the blandness) of the remaining components. I try to compensate in my descriptions to account for other tastes, 'cause we all got different mammas, but ultimately things are gonna trend toward the subjective.

Naturally, anyone's welcome to make their own judgements, and map, even--especially the folks who are shilling for their personal restaurants on the Commercial Appeal site. And Paul Kirk (as Calvin Trillin before him) can make his own special briskophilic selections over in Kansas City. And the Texans can rate their beef ribs as magnificent, and the North Carolinians can wax poetic about the virtues of hush puppies with theirs, and we'll all be right.

1 comment:

Kembree said...

I agree, it is so much opinion. My group is very different on the flavor, but we all agree we want to walk in a place and 'smell' it cooking. I personally like the crisp 'outside' meat versus the mushy type. As for sauce I like it a little tangy and not so thick. Payne's has been my favorite so far...