A Road Trip of a Lifetime...
with Mike Johnston
BBQ Chasing BBQ
Barbecuing is the ultimate “spice” form of cooking. Yeah, I said it! Sure, some will argue that Indian cooking (with a long history of amazing curries using a multitude of spices) is, others would lean toward Thai, and many would land on the side of Mexico with their complex, spice-rich mole sauces. They would all have valid points and strong arguments that on a different day I might have to side with. But not today. Today I’m a proud American, touting one of our cooking styles that—believe it or not—is being enthusiastically replicated around the world. Great foodie cities like London and Paris now have locally-owned barbecue joints offering specific styles of American regional barbecue. We always knew that American barbecue had that certain “je ne sais quoi”, but now others are starting to get it too!
|Mike Mills from 17th Street BBQ - Murphysboro, IL|
Over 10+ years of selling spices and developing seasonings, the barbecue section has consistently received the most attention from our customers and me. Even with all of the attention I’ve given it, it is clear that our customers are still salivating for even more flavor combos! So, I decided an exploration into American regional barbecue was in order. Through my research, I learned that (the consensus is) seven specific regions make up the family tree of American barbecue.
1. Central Texas
2. East Texas
5. South Carolina
6. North Carolina
7. Kansas City
So I set a course with these seven areas as my primary targets; but not an itinerary so rigid that I might miss out on the opportunity to visit a barbecue joint that wasn’t originally on my radar.
My original plan was very aggressive in terms of the number of joints I wanted to hit versus the days I had allotted; 76 barbecue joints in 38 days! While I liked the idea of needing to hit only two stops a day (I figured I could easily eat barbecue twice a day), I didn’t love the idea of doing it without any breaks. Plus, my route would have me driving past trout rivers that I knew I would want to cast a few flies into. With that in mind, I revised my plan; I’d leave Denver on August 14th and return on September 25th—just in time to host a barbecue party at my home on the 26th. That meant I now had 43 days on the road. With those extra days I could take a two day break every two weeks to do some fishing and catch up on some veggies, or so I thought.
On August 14, 2015 I packed my bags, loaded up my truck, hitched up my camper and headed south on I-25 to begin Chasing Barbecue. Amazingly I would drive more than 7000 miles without so much as a flat tire or speeding ticket, catch and release 50+ fish, hit 88 barbecue joints in 14 states, and make it home the evening of September 25th to cook barbecue for my golf league friends on 26th. Oh, I almost forgot the swag; along the way I collected 66 barbecue tees and 21 hats!
Before leaving on my Chasing Barbecue road trip, I had some concerns about what all this barbecue feasting could or would ultimately do to me.
|Heirloom Market BBQ - Atlanta, GA|
Would eating barbecue multiple times a day, day after day, kill my love for it?
Would I gain so much weight that I would have to stop and buy some fat pants just to make it through the trip? (My team here in Denver had a weight gain pool and some were betting I’d gain as much as 15-20 pounds on the trip!)
Could my cholesterol levels spike and become a danger? And how does one even know that’s what is happening when it happens?
What about meat sweats, whatever the heck they are? Would I experience them and have to drop out early (and let my Savory team down) because I was a meat-sweating quitter?
And worst of all, as I’m quickly approaching 50, might I drop dead of a barbeque-overload induced heart attack? (Though, death by barbecue might not be the worst way to go.)
Obviously the last one didn’t happen because I’m writing this but none of the others did either…at least not to me! Believe it or not, even in the latter days of my Chasing Barbecue road trip, I was always psyched for the first stop of the day. It was the second, third, and sometimes fourth and fifth stops that were challenging. Most days I ended up hitting 3 barbecue joints. Breakfast typically wasn’t an option so I’d generally arrive around 11am for an early lunch, have a late lunch around 2pm, and finish with a dinner at 6pm. That’s not a lot of digestion time between meals and I realized early on that I needed to develop an eating strategy.
If you followed my trip on Facebook last summer, while I was live-blogging it, you saw me post many photos of massive amounts of barbecue. The reason I ordered a lot (aside from wanting to share an impressive pic) was so I could get the best possible representation of what each of these regional barbecue aficionados had to offer. I would take a single bite of each item on the plate and then allow myself two or three additional bites of my favorites. If they had barbecue sauces I’d use my extra bites to try each of those. I didn’t just try their ‘cue, I was also on the hunt for info on the regional differences in sides and desserts. I tried to apply the same strategy for those but desserts didn’t always make it easy. You try walking away from scrumptious, chewy, fried pie filled with warm peaches or a cup of creamy banana pudding chock-full of a nostalgic, childhood favorite—vanilla wafer cookies! I was pretty diligent in sticking with my strategy but if I strayed I simply ‘punished’ myself with an extra mile on my run the next morning.
Trying all that ‘cue without having conversations with the expert pitmasters who made it would have been a missed opportunity. So every day I tried to be the most extroverted version of myself. If you know me personally, you know that I tend to lean introvert. After all, I have an extroverted crutch I can lean on: Janet, my outgoing, easy-on-the-eyes wife! She has opened doors and started conversations that make our lives much more interesting and I’m grateful to her for that. But she wasn’t down for eating barbecue every day for more than a month; so if I wanted to gather the best information I needed to “man up”, put a smile on my face, and engage…damn it!
And engage I did! By itself, Chasing Barbecue for 43 days and hitting 88 joints makes for a great road trip. But the people I met along the way made it the road trip of a lifetime.
|Paul Kirk - The Baron of Barbecue|
I got to hang out, talk barbecue, and get tips from three legendary barbecue Hall of Famers (yes, there is a barbecue Hall of Fame): Pat Burke, Mike “The Legend” Mills, and Paul “The Baron of BBQ” Kirk. Pat Burke has won more barbecue titles and championships than any living person. His triumphs include three Grand World Championships, five Memphis in May titles, and The Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational. Mike Mills has won four World Championships, three Memphis in May titles, The Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational, and Jack Daniel’s Sauce Championship. Paul Kirk has won more than 500 cooking and barbecue awards including seven World Championships highlighted by wins in the American Royal World Series of Barbecue Open Contest, the American Royal Invitational, The Jack Daniel’s Invitational, and let’s not forget his 12 cookbooks and that he is a founding member of the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
I also met and had ‘cue convos with some of the most fascinating people in the business. In Texas that included Big Ern Servantes, the winner of Chopped Grill Masters; Roy Perez, the pitmaster for 28+ years at the historic Kreuz Market in the “Mecca of Barbecue,” Lockhart, Texas; Tootsie Tomanetz, the original female pitmaster (still womanning the pits at 80+ years old!); John Mueller, the bad boy of Texas barbecue (his barbecue family tree includes grandfather Louie, father Bobby, brother Wayne, sister LeAnn, and assorted other rising pitmasters in and around Texas); and Daniel Vaughn, aka The Barbecue Snob, the barbecue editor for Texas Monthly (the publication annually determines the top 50 barbecue joints in Texas).
In Memphis the conversational ‘cue highlights included Craig Blondis, co-founder of Central BBQ; Eric Vernon, whose family operates the number one barbecue joint in the country according to Food Network; and Bobby Bradley of Cozy Corner BBQ, whose family has been serving up a barbecue original, Cornish hens, since 1977.
|Christopher Prieto from Prime BBQ - Wendell, NC|
In Alabama I sat down and talked ‘cue with Miss Lulu Hatcher, who was 12 when her mother Lannie opened their family joint in 1942—Lannie’s BBQ in Selma; I also talked to Don McLemore, a barbecue champion in some of the biggest events in our country and the grandson of Big Bob Gibson, who invented the famous Alabama white barbecue sauce 91 years ago.
In the Carolinas, I talked with whole hog barbecue specialists Rodney Scott, of Scott’s in Hemingway, SC; Sam Jones, of Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ, whose family has been serving up barbecue in North Carolina since the mid-1800s; and James Beard award nominee Elliot Moss, who recently shifted his culinary focus to barbecue by opening his new joint, Buxton Hall BBQ in Asheville, NC.
In Kentucky I tracked down the notoriously cranky Oscar Hill, the 79-year-old oil man turned pitmaster who is famous for ‘cueing up double cut pork chops. In St. Louis it was Mike “Pappy” Emerson of Pappy’s Smokehouse who shared some of his knowledge with me. In Kansas City, brothers Joe and Mike Pearce of Slap’s (Squeal Like A Pig) gave me some of their time; as did 81 year old LC Richardson of LC’s BBQ.
While this list is long, it actually represents fewer than a third of the barbecue pros I was lucky enough to speak with while Chasing Barbecue. Before I share the questions I asked, I want to call out one more person. Without this man’s assistance there is no way my trip would have been as successful. So I want to say a huge thank you to Christopher Prieto, owner of Prime BBQ, author of Southern Living Ultimate Book of BBQ, Savory fan, and all around great guy. Not only did he go out of his way to contact his friends in barbecue to tell them about my trip and get me access, but he also hosted me for an unforgettable day of barbecue in North Carolina.
I asked every barbecue pro I met on this trip a few questions.
• In your own words, what defines your region’s barbecue?
• Are there any spices that are critical to your style of barbecue?
• What pro-tip would you give the backyard barbecue guy or gal to help them produce better barbecue at home?
|Tootsie from Snow's BBQ - Lexington, TX|
From their answers, I gathered a lot of interesting and helpful information to share. Perhaps surprisingly, the spices being used across the different regions are not all that different. Texas stands out for its simplicity by predominately using only kosher salt and extra coarse black pepper to season its beef barbecue, but in robust quantities…really coating it on! In the rest of the regions it’s the usual spice suspects: salt, pepper, paprika, garlic, onion, mustard, cumin, celery, chiles and chili powders, etc. in varying combinations—nothing extraordinarily different. In Kansas City and Memphis they do use a fair amount of sugar in their rubs.
Where I found the striking differences in regional flavors were in the sauces. Interestingly, some barbecue purists I talked with said that barbecue sauces aren’t part of authentic barbecue. However, that wasn’t what I experienced. In fact, of the 88 joints I hit only one didn’t offer any sort of barbecue sauce. The rest not only had a sauce option but, more often than not, they offered their regionally specific sauce and two to three additional popular options that resonated with their customers.
Over the summer we’ll delve into the differences I did find, which will include info on those sauces, fuels used, and the types of proteins different regions specialize in. We’ll also share the pro-tips I gathered and interesting barbecue terminology I ran across along the way. Hopefully the collection of info we’ll be sharing will help you up your game; you might even intimidate your neighbors a little when they are drawn into your backyard by amazing aromas. So please stay tuned.