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FOR THE FOURTH DAY OF JULY : All across the United States, the art of barbecuing or grilling has taken on a distinctly regional flavor. Cooking techniques and seasonings vary greatly, whether cooks prepare pork, beef, chicken or fish. The sauces used for basting and marinating meats also reflect local traditions.

July 02, 1987|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

Barbecuing is like cooking chili. Each devotee is absolutely, incontrovertibly convinced he or she does it best. It is a personal accomplishment that can be equaled by no one and, of course, each is equally certain that his or her personal recipe for barbecue sauce (usually a tightly held secret) cannot be matched by anyone anywhere.

We are talking fanatics here. These are grilling and smoke-cooking experts who have no peers. There's only one way to grill or smoke foods for this group . . . and that's their way!

But what about those of us who like to try new foods on the grill and new techniques? Should we skulk around our patios and light up the barbecue only when the wind is blowing upwind from where the neighborhood expert lives? Not at all. Go right ahead and light up the charcoal. Do your own thing. Chances are good that that educated neighborhood nose will be drawn to your backyard to see what can be learned. And who knows, maybe you can teach the expert a thing or two.

For the last six months or so, I've been collecting interesting and unusual recipes for outdoor barbecuing. Friends from all over the country have shared their favorites and, believe me, barbecue is not the same everywhere. I even spent a weekend fighting my way through the mud and smoke of a true Mid-South pork barbecue cook-off in Memphis during the big Memphis in May celebration.

This was smoke-barbecuing at its best, but it was not for the casual cook counting pennies. The least expensive of all the smoke ovens used tallied in at between $1,200 and $1,400, and most of them were so large they had to be carted around on trailers or trucks.

All cooking was based on three pork cuts: whole hog, pork shoulder and ribs. At judging time, showmanship was an important part of the event, and some went so far as to serve slabs of ribs on silver platters and offer the judges chilled glasses of Champagne. When it came to the cooking, however, that's where the game-playing stopped.

Each team of barbecuers had its resident expert whose instructions were followed without question. The results meant a lot of marvelous tasting for those lucky enough to sample the various offerings.

It also was interesting to see how widely barbecue differs across the country. Throughout the Southeast and Mid-South, pork is the most popular choice of meat. In Texas and across the Southwest, as well as in the cattle states of the North, beef is the favorite barbecue choice. In the Northwest and most coastal regions, fish is a favorite, whereas chicken rates high as a popular grill item all across the country.

In some parts of the country the word barbecue is synonymous with long, slow, covered smoke-cooking, usually of large pieces of meat. In others, notably the West, barbecuing tends to mean tossing a steak or slab of ribs or half-broiler on an open grill. And the seasonings differ greatly. Southeasterners who barbecue a lot of pork and chicken prefer a mustard-vinegar style of basting sauce. No tomatoes for them. As you move across the country to the Mid-South and Midwest, however, tomato tends to be the dominant flavor in most basting sauces, which also are much sweeter than those used elsewhere. (See related story on Page 29.)

One of the most unusual barbecue sauces we ran across was a basting sauce that came from Charlotte Hansen, food editor of the Jamestown (N.D.) Sun. "This is the sauce used in the famous Alaskan Salmon Bake at the Alaskaland recreation area in Fairbanks, Alaska," Hansen said. "Everyone questions it because of the brown sugar. But we've tried it at home and it really works."

We tried it too, and although it certainly is an unusual choice for a fish basting sauce, our tasters heartily approved of the results.

In some parts of the country, barbecuers prefer to marinate meats to be grilled in wet marinades for 30 minutes to overnight before grilling them. In other areas, a dry rub is preferred. But almost everywhere, a good barbecuer will admonish you not to baste with any type of tomato or sugar-laden barbecue sauce until close to the end of the cooking time. Most of the thicker sauces do contain some form of sweetener, whether it's molasses, honey or sugar, and these ingredients will burn quickly. So wait until whatever you're grilling or smoking is almost done before adding them.

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