2006-05-04 / Sam Bari

You can't beat a system you can't understand

"Ribs" - a two syllable word
By Sam Bari

It's that time of year again . . . that odd time when every male in New England who owns a charcoal or gas grill tries to convince the world that he knows how to cook Southern barbecue. Why these men assume such a thing is beyond my comprehension.

After living in the Southern states for a good part of my life, I know about the cooking habits of folks on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, and those habits are unlike anywhere else in the country. Now, I'm not writing disparaging remarks about New England cuisine. New England fare is quite tasty. But when you want barbecue, the South rules, and with good reason. To Southerners, barbecue is more than food. It's a way of life, almost an ideology.

In the North, golf courses provide the setting for more business decisions than boardrooms do. In the South, decisions are made over barbecue. Southerners serve barbecue at conventions, weddings, funerals, baptisms, and birthday celebrations. If you're not from the South, the concept is not easy to grasp. However, barbecue isn't the only part of Southern cuisine that's different from the rest of the country.

Not long ago, I went to a local restaurant displaying a sign that said, "Home cooking - open for breakfast." This is where I started noticing the difference between New England traditions and those of the deep South. In the South, a home-cooked breakfast means ham, eggs, pancakes, biscuits, redeye gravy, and grits. As soon as the waitress asked, "What's a grit?" my stomach knotted up as my taste buds went on high alert. There is no such thing as "a grit." I can't even imagine what one grit would look like.

To understand barbecue as prepared by Southerners, you have to adjust your mindset and the way you talk. If you do not know how to pronounce "ribs" as a two-syllable word, and you think hush puppies are shoes, you are possibly barbecue challenged.

To get started, you have to find the "right" store. The right store will proudly display Velveeta in the gourmet section. You'll know for sure that you're in the right place if they do not sell olive oil. True Southerners don't need it; they cook with lard and fatback. The leanest meat found in this establishment will probably be bacon. Nothing related to good health will be sold in this store. The only cuisine that is more conducive to cardiac malfunction than Southern barbecue is allegedly Mexican, and I've heard some doctors dispute that claim.

The Southern cooking aficionado will have three necessary items on the patio at all times: a grill, a smoker, and minimally, a four-gallon turkey fryer that is always filled with peanut oil made from Georgia peanuts. The fryer cooks more than just turkeys. When prepared in the deep fryer, chickens, catfish, and prime ribs are delicacies. To a Southerner, if it ain't fried, baked or barbecued, it ain't food. They'd fry water if it were possible.

The dead giveaway that a Southerner is not in charge of the grill is if a commercial bottle of barbecue sauce is in the vicinity. A true Southerner would rather give away his pickup truck than be caught cooking with a storebought sauce. They make their own, and the recipes are more closely guarded than Atomic Energy Commission secrets. Hmmm . . . maybe that wasn't a good example. Anyway, barbecue sauce recipes are considered sacred and held close to the vest in the deep South.

Here's a hint about sauce. Barbecue sauce is brown, not red. It's because the basic ingredients are brown sugar, butter, and molasses. As my grandma used to say, "Throw in a cup o' molasses - not the whole mole, just the mole . . ." well . . . you get the idea. And the sauce isn't slathered on whatever you're cooking until after it's cooked, otherwise the sugar and butter will burn. Also, if your sauce recipe doesn't include bourbon or beer in the ingredients, it probably isn't worth making. And, if you're cooking steaks, marinade them in Coca-Cola before throwin' 'em on the fire. Not Diet Coke or any other cola. Only the full-strength, original Coca-Cola recipe will do. It's a tradition that's as old as the brand.

Southerners are also known to make barbecue sauce on the spicy side. They use chopped chipotle, habanero, or scotch bonnet peppers by the rubber glove covered handful. To this, they add cayenne pepper and jalapenos. If these fiery peppers touch your bare skin, you could get third-degree burns. Leftover spicy barbecue sauce has allegedly been used to remove paint, varnish, and chrome plating. But when it makes your forehead perspire, it's a good reason to drink beer.

Southerners also like certain "sides" with their barbecue. They serve 'tater salad, creamy coleslaw, hush puppies, barbecued beans, and cornbread cooked in a cast iron skillet. Southerners do not eat "badadas" or however New Englanders pronounce "potatoes." They eat "taters," and for dessert, they invented "sweet tater pie."

Now remember, I never said it was good for you, I said, "It tastes good." However, give me a couple o' "stuffies," and I'll fry you up a whole mess o' hush puppies

and barbecued "rey-ubs." Southern barbecue - an American tradition that has long survived living in a system we can't understand.

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