What is Real Barbecue?

The answer isn’t simple.  There’s a continuum – perhaps a slippery slope – between what is undeniably and gloriously the real thing and that which clearly is not.

At the pinnacle of the pitmaster’s art is barbecue cooked the traditional way, entirely with heat and smoke from burning hardwood or hardwood coals.  What meat or meats are cooked, what sauce is used (if any), the details of cooking techniques – these are given by tradition as well, but traditions vary from place to place. The one constant is wood, the source of heat and smoke.

Tennesseans, Texans, Midwesterners, and federal bureaucrats don’t agree about much, but all understand that cooking with hardwood makes the difference between barbecue and roast meat. The Memphis-in-May World Championship Barbecue Contest and all its tributary contests define barbecue as “pork meat only . . . prepared on a wood or charcoal fire.” The Kansas City Barbecue Society is more permissive about meats, but uses exactly the same language about how the cooking should be done: “on wood or charcoal fire.”  Contests run by the Central Texas Barbecue Association also stipulate that “under no condition can gas or electricity be used for cooking.” And the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 9, Subpart C, §319.80, defines barbecue as “cooked by the direct action of heat resulting from the burning of hardwood or the hot coals therefrom.”

Cooking the old-school way, entirely with wood, is still the preferred method for those like competition barbecuers who have the time and resources for it. But technology marches on. In towns and cities from coast to coast barbecue is now being prepared with something like Ole Hickory or Southern Pride cookers, hybrid devices that use wood for smoke but supplement it with some degree of heat from gas or electricity.  At its best this process can produce barbecue on par with the entirely wood-cooked variety, and does so more consistently with less oversight. It is also easier and cheaper, so it’s no surprise that most new barbecue restaurants these days take this course, some of them with excellent results.

But the product of hybrid cookers doesn’t always measure up to the gold standard of all-wood cooking. Hybrid devices can be used simply as gas or electric ovens, with a few wood chips feebly smoking – not much different from roasting meat and then giving it a pass through a stove-top smoker.  The next step in this downward spiral is cooking with no wood at all. There actually are establishments, all too many of them, that serve slow-roasted meat untouched by even the bottled kind of wood smoke and call it barbecue.

You see the problem. We start with barbecue cooked in a pit over live coals, or with heat and smoke from a stick-burning firebox, and we end up with a Boston butt in a crockpot.  Somewhere along the way we’ve crossed the line between True ‘Cue and faux ‘cue. We do not intend to draw that line, just to point out that there’s a hierarchy here and the purveyors of faux ‘cue are at the bottom of it.  (We won’t name and shame these folks, but they know who they are and they know what they can do about it.)

Why do we care?  Because we believe that Real Barbecue is rooted in three things increasingly lacking in today’s world: taste, tradition and a sense of place. We think the world will be a better place with more Real Barbecue in it.  We hope you agree.