Growing up in Kewanee, Illinois, in farming country, our town had the dubious distinction of being crowned “Hog Capital of the World” due to our having the most hogs of any county in the United States.
And every year on Labor Day weekend, the downtown streets were populated with dozens of highly…aromatic…hog pens, along with a Ferris wheel and a “barbecue” in the Peerless Theater parking lot where civic-minded volunteers would grill thousands of pork chops for the throngs of visitors from the surrounding towns. The chops, made into sandwiches encased between two slices of white bread, sold for 25 cents each.
Years later, at the University of Illinois, after a Saturday night of beer drinking and carousing, my buddies and I would drop off our dates at 10:30 PM (girls had a curfew then), and we’d head into north Champaign to PO-BOYS BARBECUE. It was as gritty and unpretentious as you could imagine. And the racks of smoked pork ribs – slathered with sweet barbecue sauce – were much deeper, richer, and smokier in flavor (not to mention fall-off-the-bone tender) than the Hog Day “barbecue” pork chop sandwiches of my youth. A stack of white bread accompanied each order.
Also, during my five years in college (it was a four-year curriculum…that’s another story), I would make occasional weekend hitch-hiking trips to Peoria, about 50 miles away, to visit Uncle John and Aunt Betty. As a starving college student, I could always count on a home-cooked meal at their house. But the highlight of the weekend was on Saturday, when my uncle would take me to lunch at JOHN’S BARBECUE on Glendale Avenue.
BIG JOHN ROBINSON (he lived upstairs above the restaurant) was 6’1″ and 235 pounds, but he loomed largest as a legendary master of barbeque. When not minding the pit, Big John could be found strolling through the dining room, putting an exclamation point on everyone’s meal by asking his belly-groaning customers, “Y’ALL GET ENOUGH TO EAT?” Of course, we did, because in addition to the slab of baby back ribs, we’d gorged ourselves on stacks of – yep – white bread: a thrifty, “tummy-stuffing,” sopping-and-sauce-soaking device, if ever there was one.
And then I remembered: In Kewanee, in our house with three families crowded together at the supper table every evening, there was an 8-inch stack of Wonder Bread dead center for all six of us to share.
Between PO-BOYS and JOHN’S, I realized that the Kewanee Hog Day pork chops were not barbeque – they were grilled.
Grilling is grilling, not barbequing. Barbeque is smoking – “low and slow” at either side of 250° F. Grilling ribs on the Weber may take about 30-40 minutes. Barbequing ribs in a smoker – low and slow – can easily take six hours.
Somewhere along the way, I came to learn of a thing called the “Barbeque Belt.” Not far afield from the Bible Belt, it roughly runs through the South from the Carolinas to Texas and Kansas. Each region has its own particular kind of barbecue. And each region is obsessive and obsessed that THEIR BBQ is the REAL BARBECUE. All others are pale imitations, imposters and interlopers. Feuding is rumored.
Take North Carolina, for example. It’s PORK, PORK and MORE PORK. In the eastern part of the state, the custom is to involve the whole hog. And their BBQ sauce, that packs a punch, is nothing but vinegar, dried chile flakes, salt and pepper. In the western part of the state, it’s mainly pork shoulder that’s been slow-smoked for hours, and the BBQ sauce mellows a bit with the inclusion of brown sugar and a little ketchup. It is, of course, delicious.
Memphis is home to the RENDEZVOUS BARBECUE downtown on 3rd Street. It’s somewhat hidden in an alley, but you can easily follow your nose to the front door. The restaurant is in the basement, as is its smoker, which was once a coal chute. The Rendezvous’ specialty is St. Louis-style ribs, which are typically smoked with a generous dusting of a mildly spicy, paprika-based herb blend. If BBQ sauce is served, expect a slightly sweet blend that includes sorghum molasses (due to Memphis being on the Mississippi with access to the far south states). Regulars, I’m told frequently order their slab. HALF WET and HALF DRY. I’ve had them both ways. And both are delicious.
Further West and a little bit north lies Kansas City, home to the114-year-old ARTHUR BRYANT’S BARBECUE at 18th St. and Brooklyn Ave. It’s a no-frills, no-salad, no-fish, no-chilli kind of place. Just get in the line that begins far from the front door, place your order, then pick up your food at the window.
Now, of course Arthur Bryant’s serves pork. But with the Kansas City stockyards close by, it’s no wonder that beef took up residence in Arthur Bryant’s hickory-and-oak-fueled smokehouse…mainly beef brisket. With around 15 hours in the smoker, the brisket came out with the edges charred and burnt – too chewy for sandwiches – so Arthur Bryant got out front with the charred edges and called them “Burnt ends,” now a staple of BBQ pits across the nation. Arthur Bryant’s sauce? The signature version is a sweet heat vinegar and tomato sauce, but he created a variety of them. They are all, dare I say, delicious.
Not to be confused with Arthur Bryant’s is SONNY BRYAN’S in Dallas: Again, a no-frills joint with the only seating being a collection of old school chairs. No surprise that with the Fort Worth stockyards in the area, beef became the meat of choice here. Smoked beef brisket platters as well as fat brisket sandwiches on white bread were crowd pleasers. My favorite: the hammer handle-sized gargantuan beef ribs – wonderfully, drippy, saucy and greasy. Beyond delicious.
Sonny Bryan’s sauce, served in Corona Beer bottles, is thick, tangy and homemade, purportedly a blend of brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard powder and ketchup, plus a healthy smack of lemon. Try as they may, no Dallas chef has been able to knock off the recipe.
Let’s be clear. I am not an expert on barbeque. I just like it. I’ve eaten various iterations throughout the South. The worst I’ve ever had was GREAT.
Others have devoted their lives to perfecting the nuances of smoking and saucing. They attend fierce competitions around the country. They experiment with different combinations of wood for their smokers. I’m not that guy.
Back here in Minnesota, I’m drawn to TED COOK’S on 38th street. The owner and pit master for over 20 years is Moses Quarty. Occasionally he’ll appear at the takeout counter, but I’m told he prefers to spend his time tending to his iron smoker, ensuring that the product is perfect. And to my mind, it is. I love his hickory and cherrywood smoked, sweet-and-hot-glazed ribs.
Another local favorite is DAVE ANDERSON’S OLD SOUTHERN BARBECUE at France Ave and 44th street. Two giant hickory wood smokers, in full view, set the stage for real, deep, smoked southern barbeque (BTW, I don’t know anyone with more BBQ knowledge than Dave Anderson). As I write this, I’ve got two of his barbecue chickens on my kitchen counter poised for tonight’s dinner. They’ll be slathered with Dave’s Dixie Red Sauce – robust, slightly sweet with a hint of smoke. It won 1st place at the American Royal BBQ competition.
So, let me take you back a number of years, when Pete and I had just started in business. Among all the hare-brained ideas we had at the time was opening a BBQ restaurant in Minneapolis. And as we toured the country conducting our research, we came upon restaurants with a wide variety of smokers – some rudimentary, others state-of-the-art. Finally, we ended up in the Windy City.
Chicago magazine had just bestowed its “Best Ribs in Town” award to CARSON’S BARBECUE. So after we had lunch at there – enjoying very good BBQ indeed – we approached the manager and asked him if we could see how they did it.
He replied….””Absolutely not! It’s a closely guarded company secret.”
Well, this being Chicago, I placed a $20 bill in his hand.
He said, “Right this way, Sir” and led Pete and me down a narrow back staircase to the BBQ room.
Along the way we passed cases of Open-Pit brand barbecue sauce and cases of Wright’s Liquid Smoke.
And then…and then…we came across the rib cookers.
No BBQ pit. No smokers. Instead: 3 or 4 electric grills, each about eight feet long.
That’s it! I thought. THAT’S how they cooked and sauced “the Best Ribs in Chicago” – grilling them over electric coils, flavoring them with liquid smoke, and saucing them with Open Pit barbeque sauce!
And the irony is….after just touring the best-of-the-best, most authentic BBQ pits and restaurants throughout the South, Pete and I thought that Carson’s were PRETTY DAMN GOOD RIBS.
So, now I have exposed a secret recipe (albeit an obsolete one; I understand that several years ago, they changed over to smokers).
CARSON’S, FORGIVE ME, FOR I HAVE SINNED.