Time To Get Your BBQ On!

BBQThis all-american summer comfort food features versatile cooking styles and a variety of picnic-perfect flavors

By Lori Hutzler Eckert

Barbecue is a highly personal thing. From the way you spell it (bar-b-cue, bar-b-que or barbecue) to the way you cook it (smoked, grilled or both) and the way you eat it (wet or dry, spicy or sweet) depends on individual preferences – not to mention a telltale allegiance to your place of birth.

And while the age-old sauce-versus-rub debate can flare up faster than a smoker pit, most people would agree that the art of cooking barbecue is a nationwide pastime founded on cherished memories and family traditions.

But this all-American food, which has most notably become synonymous with July Fourth celebrations, actually has origins reaching back as far as 25,000 B.C. Fire and meat came together, and an instant outdoor culinary delight was discovered.

Through the centuries, other cultures, including the early Greeks, have put their spin on cooking out, but once the United States was settled, the country quickly claimed barbecue as its own.

Dividing America with more contentious boundaries than the Mason-Dixon Line, the methods for preparing, serving and cooking meat over a flame or indirect heat have become both legend and legacy in regions across the country.

Beef takes center grill at most barbecues in the West. Cattle country is known for cooking out cowboy-style, with burgers, beef ribs and steaks.  

In the South, pork rules in the pit, with spicy ribs, roast pork loin and barbecue pulled pork. This region takes its barbecuing practices so seriously, certain styles have been claimed by its states. Tennessee is known for its slow-cooked, sweet and spicy barbecue, while the Carolinas stake their pride on different types of sauces.

The Midwest goes a step further, with its barbecuing persona emerging at a city level. In Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, and even as far as Cincinnati, a mix of meat is preferred. Pork and beef ribs, chicken, sausage and brisket all are included within these cities’ declaration of barbecue fame.

Sam Burn, who serves as commissioner of culture for Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, a Birmingham, Ala.-based company with two restaurants on the Emerald Coast, calls these localized preferences “cultural identifiers.”

Jim ’N Nick’s, locally found in Niceville and Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort’s Baytowne Wharf, is known for serving a variety of styles and flavors when it comes to barbecue.

Burn said the award-winning menu – which includes beef, pork and chicken, smoked for 12 to 14 hours delivers a barbecue experience based on authentic regional traditions.

“You know, barbecue has got such a cultural foundation,” he said. “It is not your typical food; it is sewn into the cultural fabric of the region.

“When I think of barbecue, I don’t just think of a way of preparing food,” Burn said. “It is really about the get-togethers that people have – and the association you have with those get-togethers.”

John Seeling, owner of 98 Bar-B-Que in Santa Rosa Beach, agrees.

“I think barbecue is a feel-good food; it is a backyard-picnic, family-get-together food,” he said. “That is why I like it. And everybody likes barbecue – every age group, every class. It’s such a good food that everyone can relate to it.”

Seeling, who bought the restaurant with his wife Nicole in late 2006, said the key to 98 Bar-B-Que’s  pork, beef and chicken barbecue is not just in the homemade sauces or signature rub – it’s patience.

“I really believe that by taking your time, cooking the meat slow and allowing the smoke to release the nitrates that penetrate the meat – and not trying to cut corners – that your product is going to be superior to anything else,” said Seeling, who can be found in the restaurant’s open-style kitchen daily.

How Do You Barbecue?

Seeling said that barbecue fans can find success at home through a little practice in seasoning and patience with cooking.

A good cut of meat also is important. Make sure your selection is fresh, never frozen; has a good portion of marbling, or fat; and has a consistent thickness for even cooking.

Butchers often will offer assistance and cut meat especially for smoking or grilling upon request.

Beef should be the tenderest cut; although it is slightly more expensive, it will be worth it. And shoulder or butt-roast cuts are popular for pork, especially for pulled pork recipes.

Seasonings or rubs can be made at home or purchased at grocery or gourmet stores. They range from salty to spicy in taste, but should be considered only a flavor enhancer, never covering the natural taste of the smoked or grilled meat.

Sauce should be used at the very end or after cooking to add a distinctive but complementary layer of flavor that can come from brown sugar, molasses, vinegar, mustard and/or peppers. Burn suggested sampling the meat before you add sauce.

“I think barbecue should taste great without the sauce,” he said. “The sauce should just take it to the next level.”

The final touch to a true barbecue is in the all-important side dishes.

As good as smoked ribs taste, they cannot stand alone at a picnic. Traditional sides include fresh coleslaw, creamy potato salad, and sweet and savory baked beans. Or shake up the cookout menu with roasted vegetables, potatoes au gratin or a chilled couscous salad.

And don’t forget the rolls. Seeling stressed their importance.

“I think at every barbecue, you’ve got to have some bread,” he said. “You need it to dip it in the sauce – and clean your plate with it!”