Where There's Fire There Is Usually smoke...Cookery
Cooking with fire and smoke -- or more precisely -- roasting over fire and flavoring with smoke is an ancient art. Cave dwellers did it first, but you'd never know it from a glance at the nation's menus. For cooking with fire and smoke is having such a red-hot culinary renaissance, a newcomer to the grill might easily assume the art of juggling a haunch of ribs over live coals to be a brand-new idea.
Far from it. All historical evidence suggests that earliest man learned about fire before he properly learned to talk. In fact, verbal communication probably developed around a roaring blaze. When tribesmen first shared in the responsibility of hunting for mutual survival, they also learned how to cook the spoils of their quarry.
The initial method used was to hurl meat directly on the conflagration. But as time passed and taste buds flowered, man learned to impale his ingredients on branches instead, so that when held over crackling embers, his dinner burnished rather than burned. And while no archaeologist confirms or denies it, there is a widespread notion that the first spoken sentence was a word of caution (from one caveman to another): "Do not overcook the dinosaur steak!"
A couple of millenniums later, fire and smoke are so much a part of America's appetite (South, West, North, and East), it is not surprising that outdoor cookery has become synonymous with American cuisine.
It is a taste decidedly part and parcel of our national heritage. Native Americans who helped the first foreign settlers tame the land taught them how to grill the game they trapped over open fires. If the first American cookout was a matter of survival, the smoky flavor and unmistakable tang of fire-roasted meats were so immediately addictive, it soon gave rise to eating out of doors as a social event. And it is still a cause for celebration year round.
The smoky haze of grill fire was once only a summertime occurrence. But today, the sweet (and sometime pungent) scent of smoke not only fills a winter sky in much of the country's rural areas, it also perfumes the interiors of some of the trendiest urban restaurant kitchens. Innovative American chefs have taken this ancient form of cookery and (through sauce and sorcery) raised it to new culinary heights. These imaginative grilling and flavoring techniques -- much publicized in the nation's magazines and press -- are now finding their ways into our backyards as well. However, it must be noted that most of the fiery gastronomic innovations are based on principles of grilling rather than traditional barbecuing.
WHAT'S BARBECUE? WHAT'S NOT!
The word barbecue itself is a heated handle. Food historians generally agree that it was coined when Spanish explorers in the New World encountered the savvy natives grilling meat and fish on crude wooden racks over open pits of fire. The Spanish called these racks barbacoa. The eventual English translation, of course: barbecue. Though Webster lists grilling (essentially broiling over charcoal) as part of a definition for barbecue, deep-dyed barbecue lovers in the South and Southwest turn livid at the very idea. To them, barbecue is (and always will be) a long, slow process of hot-smoking meats over low-banked coals.
From earliest times, pits were dug in the earth and lined with bricks. Wood was laid and lit, and the meat was placed on metal racks high above the smoldering embers to cook slowly. Very slowly. These covered pits were inevitably tended by "pitmen" who took great pride in their skills. Each had his own carefully guarded secret techniques for producing the moistest results with just the right amount of smoky taste. Sad to say, most commercial barbecue today is produced indoors in various-shaped steel fireboxes. However, old-fashioned, smoke-scented barbecue is alive and well in certain parts of the South and Texas where pilgrims by the thousands annually cross the landscape searching for the best bite.
Though the term barbecue obviously can mean many things, in my book there are basically four types of outdoor cookery.
THE FOUR WAYS TO COOK SUCCESSFULLY WITH FIRE AND SMOKE
Grilling: It's the simplest and fastest technique. It means broiling meats or foods directly over a high heat source (be it hot coal, gas, or an electric element). Grilling usually takes just minutes. Most smaller cuts of meat and fish (chops, steaks, hamburgers, filets, and even hot dogs) are perfect for grilling.
Covered Cooking: Not dissimilar to cooking in a kitchen oven with one major exception. Out of doors, smoke permeates the food as it cooks. The cover reflects the heat from the coals (or lava rocks in the case of gas grills), creating a controlled environment that substantially cuts cooking times and allows the food to maintain its natural juiciness. It is one of the most versatile methods of grill cookery, and is excellent for whole fish, roasts, and fowl.
Rotisserie Cooking: Basically it's spit roasting. It is the perfect way to cook larger roasts or birds. In rotisserie cooking, the heat source is ultimately placed at the side of the meat, rather than directly underneath. This allows for even cooking, and, as the meat turns over and over, self-basting in the bargain.
Smoke Cooking: The slowest process of all, but in my opinion, the only way to create a true down-home "barbecue" flavor. Smoke cooking usually involves the addition of a water vapor to the cooking process. Food cooked this way over low, low tempered heat, with wood chips added for extra (smoky) flavor, is always tender and moist.
Anyone can be a great outdoor cook. You will be surprised how quickly even a neophyte becomes adept at playing with fire. The most important lesson to be learned about the quartet of cooking techniques is to control the heat source and serve the meats crisp, but not scorched. All the basics one needs to know are detailed in the chapters that follow.
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE "B" WORD
Among the myriad "false" etymologies of the term barbecue, and one most bruited about and seriously chewed over, is that the word stems from a French duelist's (or butcher's) expression: barbe-a-queue, which means "from beard to tail." And is fairly self-explanatory.
Another, offered by Tar Heel magazine (North Carolina's favorite monthly), whimsically suggests the word developed out of early (nineteenth-century) advertising. The owner of a Carolinian combination whiskey bar, beer parlor, pool hall, and café, specializing in roast pork, wanted to let folks know what to expect at his establishment. As the fellow couldn't fit all that circumlocution on his storefront, he abbreviated it to "Bar-Beer-Cue-Pig!"
The editor of Tar Heel goes on to suggest ways to name your own barbecue enterprise with a beginner's guide that gives one a total of 300 possibilities:
"First, use your nickname, first name, or surname to show you have pride in your product: Bubba's, Harold's, Floyd's, Smith's, or Wilson's for example. Now describe the product: Old-Time, All-American, Hickory-Smoked, Pit-Cooked, Pit, Down-Home...or Sho'Nuff. Finally, pick your favorite spelling of the product per se: BBQ, Barbecue, Barbeque, Bar-B-Cue, Bar-B-Que, or Bar-B-Q."
Now you're in business!
Or I am. Consider: "Phil's Sho'Nuff, Old-Time, All-American BBQ!" for starters!