Barbecue rises like a plume of hardwood smoke above the esoteric foods of America. And like good barbecue, this didn't happen fast. It probably started when the first pigs walked ashore at Jamestown in 17th-Century Virginia. Barbecue, in fact, might just be a 400-year-old argument.
What makes it good when it is good? Real when it is real? With all the time it takes to produce credible barbecue over the lowest imaginable fire, there is certainly time for debate to abound, which has only added to a certain, smoky mystique sauced in a Southern accent.
I have eaten good barbecue--pork shoulder, ribs, beef brisket, links, chicken--and frankly, as long as the eating pleasure is intense, I could care less if it is barbecue cooked in the Kansas City style or the Memphis style, the Texas style or the western half of North Carolina style, or the eastern half, for that matter. Chinese barbecue is fine by me.
While eating, I have had occasion to listen in on ponderous discourses on the subject of barbecue, much of which concerns how it is accomplished, and I have always wandered away, sucking my fingertips, wondering what all the fuss could possibly be about.
Barbecue is simply low temperature, smoke and lots of time. The only difference is going to be in the rub of spices or the marinade you apply to the meat before it goes into the pit, and the basting sauce you apply while it cooks, and the barbecue sauce you bring to the table with the finished product falling off the bone. I had been lost with such thoughts, but now I'm found; I was blind, but now I see.
If God is a barbecue pit, He arrived on a truck from Texas. And I'm not talking about some kind of enamel-coated grill stored out on the lanai next to the hibachi. No sir. This pit is simply too big, too heavy, too there. Assembled, the Hondo Smoker, as it is called, has all the look of an answered prayer: two sleek black barrels mounted end to end, one offset from the other, standing waist-high on sturdy legs and wheels. In whole, 160 pounds of arc-welded 12-gauge rolled-steel magnificence.
This pit is a piece of business, a child of the Texas oil fields, a tool-lover's tool. My grandfather would have called it a peach. Simply stated, the Hondo Smoker provides a means of convection cooking that prevents pork ribs, chickens, sausages, beef briskets, rolled roasts, tri-tips, turkeys, legs of lamb or any manner of game from ever seeing the flame, ever feeling the direct lick of fire. The meat simply basks within the natural currents of heat and smoke, which is as it should be.
There are those who say real barbecue occurs below the boiling point of water, which at sea level is 212 degrees. These cooks work a subtle territory found between 180 and 210 degrees. Seasoned pitmasters, I am told, simply extend an open palm over the fire and know when it is right. Other cooks prefer to work at higher barbecue temperatures, 225 to 240 degrees, giving up a bit of that hot-juices-running-off-the-elbow succulence in exchange for shorter cooking times and better protection against bacteria.
All of this points in the direction of the obvious: Real barbecue and charcoal-grilling have only fire in common. Pieces of chicken can be grilled up and plopped on the dinner plate within 30 minutes. Barbecued chicken is going to languish in a pit such as the Hondo Smoker for at least 30 to 40 minutes per pound, often longer. A whole bird can take four to six hours. A tender beef brisket (at best, an oxymoron) will cook from one end of the day to the other.
Though alone at the time, I was more than a little smug when I first set to cooking some real barbecue in my virgin pit. I prepared a North African rub of ginger, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, onion, garlic, salt, paprika, crushed hot red pepper and cracked black peppercorns and I massaged all that into three sirloin tip roasts.
As they slow-cooked in the pit I sprayed them with a highly aromatic Ethiopian butter-oil mixed with water and vinegar. I chuckled to myself. I congratulated myself. Barbecue indeed. I had the rig. I had the right selection of woods. I had the will. I had the time. I even thought I had the temperature under control.
What I didn't have, as it turned out, was the esoteric part, the right touch. My first efforts at real barbecue tasted like petroleum-laced meat dragged through the back of a fireplace.
Ron Snyder, president of the New Braunfels Smoker Co. (P.O Box 310096, New Braunfels, Tex. 78131) and manufacturer of the Hondo Smoker, listened patiently as I described how I had arrived at a minimal fire technique, using only enough charcoal and the occasional stick of hardwood to keep the pit at 200 to 210 degrees while giving up only enough smoke to flavor, not obliterate, the meat.