Barbecue is part of the fabric of the South. All true Southern boys pick up barbecuing by osmosis. Now only one animal is suitable for true barbecue – that would be the noble pig. Only one wood is suitable – seasoned hickory. Now I know that those people in Texas and the Southwest use beef and mesquite. But they are heretics and unworthy of notice. And a grill and charcoal cannot possibly produce true barbecue, they are only suitable for burning hamburgers.
Every boy, as part of the rites of passage in the Old South, had to build his own barbecue pit. I have had all kinds of pits from the simple to the elaborate. Probably the most elaborate is one that came with the first house I ever bought. I had known this house since early childhood. It belonged to my best friend. Well – actually to his parents, but that was my view at the time. Anyway, it coincided rather nicely that my ex and I were ready to try buying a house at the time my bud’s parents wanted to sell. $13,400, a fortune in those days. Payments $100 a month, and that a strain. Now my friend’s dad was a compulsive worker (depression generation). He would put in a hard day at his day job, come home and work till he dropped. The man was a genius gardener. Of course, he planted food. Flowers were mostly useless. Anyway, he had built this large above ground pit with all the trimmings from found rocks. The man never bought anything, he scrounged. Anyway, this was one nice pit. Did some good cooking on it, but my heart was never in this one. I hadn’t built it myself, and that’s part of the ritual.
My favorite pit was the one I built in South Carolina when we lived in Six Mile, a little hole in the road outside Clemson. This was about as simple as a pit can get: cinderblocks (scrounged), and some salvaged oven racks from the nearby appliance store. I guess my friend’s dad influenced me. Everything was scrounged. Now in that neck of the woods, Duke Power rules all. Total electric. Not cheap. There is some natural gas in downtown Clemson, but those people up there don’t trust it or know how to work on it. Let me tell you: If you have total electric and a cold winter, your pocketbook will be rather flat. Duke Power has no mercy and takes no prisoners. Makes you appreciate Georgia Power a whole lot more. Now, the house up there did have a fireplace, but it was conventional construction type. This meant that it looked pretty, but would not draw or heat worth a flip. Now I know that our ancestors were not stupid, but somehow we’ve lost sight of the concept that smoke should go up the chimney and heat should go into the room. We seem to see fireplaces that do the reverse, a lot. With a lot of material and considerable sweat it is possible to rebuild a fireplace to proper Rumfordian function. Rumfordian? Baron Rumford was a contemporary of Ben Franklin’s who did research and figured out how fireplaces should be proportioned and built to work correctly and wrote it in detail. Anyway, it was prohibitive, so I gritted my teeth and bought (shudder) a good quality fireplace insert that had a blower, dampers, catalytic combustor, all the goodies. This thing could heat a 2,500 square foot house (and did!). Now all this is to get to the point that there were some young, greedy (best kind) capitalists in the neighborhood that would go into the nearby forest and collect wood. Yes, they were licensed and careful what they harvested. They would deliver a pickup truck full of wood, busted and stacked anywhere I wanted it for $35. I soon had a separate stack of hickory seasoning nicely.
Back to the barbecue. You build your pit in an open U shape. Two blocks high at the back. As wide as the racks you have. As long as the number of racks plus one. That’s important. Your pit is longer than the racks by at least one space. And don’t bother with any mortar, just stack the blocks like you want them. Now crumble up a layer of newspaper in the area NOT cover by racks. Lay some lighter wood (that’s fat pine to you Yankees or city boys). Built a nice structure of thin split hickory with good ventilation spaces above that. Do not use lighter fluid if you can help it. It can give a funny taste to things. Anyway, light the paper and blow gently or fan it. Old funeral parlor fans are the best, if you know what those are and can get them. Now is you are an impatient wus (I am sometimes), drag a cheap hair dryer (don’t use mama’s best) out to the pit and use it on low speed to gently bring the flames up. When the wood is burning well add some good size pieces of hickory and reduce to good coals. Start raking good coals to the back under the racks as the coals build and keep stacking fresh logs on the front to become more coals. I forgot to mention that you want to face this thing into the prevailing wind so that the smoke goes from front to back. Anyway, after you get the whole coals, rake, more wood, coals, etc. cycle going nicely, place the meat, either ribs or roast or whatever well back on the racks so that it gets lots of nice hickory smoke but not too much heat – proper barbecue is 200° to 210° or so. Any hotter and you are not barbecuing, you are grilling. You want to turn the meat maybe every 15 minutes or so. Now this is going to take about 45 minutes to an hour per pound, so be patient. Ribs are pretty easy to see. Cheat – use a thermometer for roasts and such or you will never get it quite right. The meat should just about fall off the bone. Good barbecue cannot possibly be sliced, it is too tender. Now sauce. Good barbecue is NEVER cooking in sauce – that is added later. What you use is a wash. A wash is easy. Try this one:
Can of frozen lemonade concentrate
Crushed lemons, rind and all
Apple vinegar or wine or whatever you like
Garlic, just crush and toss ‘em in. How much? To taste, if course (Of course, if it is a roast you also want to slice some and lace it into the meat).
Clove, powdered – light touch
Cinnamon, powdered – the secret ingredient – does nice things for pork
Kitchen sink or whatever else you like
Now a good wash tastes pretty rough if you drink it. You have use your future taste buds and figure out what it is going to taste like. The main purpose of the wash is to keep the meat from drying out during the slow smoking process. Slop the stuff on with any kind of thing that will carry the liquid to the meat and spread it around.
The sauce. There are a lot of different sauces. Some thin and hot. Some thick and sweet. Some based on mustard. They are all different in different parts of the South and each barbecue chef has his own recipe. Do what you like. But put it on after the meat is cooked. Usually you just provide the sauce on the side and let people put on however much they like. Here’s one I have been using with great success for years:
MTR’s Super Sweet Killer Diller Barbecue Sauce
1 cup ketchup
1 cup white wine or some decent vinegar
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup molasses
1 Tbs black worcestershire sauce
1 Tbs white worcestershire sauce
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 cloves minced fresh garlic (or to taste)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp salt
about 20 grinds black pepper
In a sauce pan combine all remaining ingredients; stir over medium heat until the mixture come to a boil, simmer for 10 minutes.
Now, make more or less depending on the amount of food and people. This doesn’t keep well, so don’t make too much. However. You may get hurt if you don’t make enough. Diddle the proportions of this, that & the other to suit yourself. And do taste while you work. Much more fun.
Now all the above takes just about a whole day to do. You might just not have that much time, energy, or beer. So here’s the quick and dirty not quite as good, but it works, version:
Set oven to 350 degrees.
If the ribs are meaty (and they’d better be), cut into individual ribs. Place the ribs, ON A RACK in a shallow baking dish, meat-side down (that’s fat side up).
Bake for about 45 minutes; drain and cool.
Make the above sauce while they’re cooking.
Put the ribs in a glass dish and cover with sauce.
Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 1 hour, or until tender (they will be in an hour).
There you have MTR’s lazy man’s ribs. They are a big hit around my house. And I don’t have to nursemaid a fire all day.
By the way, the same barbecue technique can be used with a nice beef roast, just cook somewhere around 20 to 30 minutes per pound. Use a thermometer or you will not get to the correct doneness. Medium rare is about right for beef. Let it stand a good 15 minutes after coming off the fire. Then it can be carved with a sharp knife. Slice about 1/4” to 3/8” and watch the happy faces when they taste it. Do remember that any roast needs to be laced with garlic.
Years ago, back in South Carolina, I made beef roast and pork roast this way for the Pascha (Easter) celebration. Now the Orthodox have been fasting from meat for about two months before Pascha. The Pascha service starts at midnight and ends somewhere between 2:30am and 4:00am depending on how fast the choir moves. So I had made these two roasts and took a microwave that has a thermometer function built in. After the service all I had to do was insert the thermometer and set the temperature. About 15 minutes later out came a perfect roast. The middle daughter of the priest was about 16 and totally beautiful in a gawky sort of way. I don’t think that I have ever seen a woman as happy with her food as that lovely girl when she had her first taste of meat after that fast. It was good, very good.