Barbecue is cooking as craft, food as folk art. It’s oak and mesquite, vinegar and molasses, a blending of ingredients and influences that takes in Mexico, the West Indies, and Africa: The barbecue pit is a melting pot. Put it all together and it’s as American as Willie and Waylon, bebop and the Mississippi Delta blues, a good- time food that skips over cultural and social divides. It’s down-home and never highfalutin, slow-cooked and eaten fast, a sometimes sweet and always smoky feast that fills the gut as it feeds the soul. The West is a barbecue frontier, a region unburdened by the orthodoxy of such hot spots as Texas and the Carolinas. The region’s one indigenous style, the oak-smoked tri-tip of Santa Maria barbecue, has created a cult of ‘cue on California’s Central Coast, but it remains a local phenomenon. That said, the West is to barbecue as Switzerland is to international relations: Neutrality should not be mistaken for a lack of interest. Based on the overwhelming and often passionate responses we received to a simple request printed in our August 2003 issue-“Help us find great barbecue” the full gamut of styles can be found here. And in some surprising places too.San Francisco’s Lower Haight district is a neighborhood teetering between grit and gentrification, east of the once-fabled Haight-Ashbury intersection. It’s cer- tainly not without its own counterculture ways: A medicinal cannabis club operates openly on the street. They’re smoking at Memphis Minnie’s Bar-B-Que Joint too-brisket, ribs, pork, sausage, and chicken in a big old smoker. The venerable contraption has been dubbed Wilbur by the joint’s owner, a self-described one-time chubby little Jewish kid from Brooklyn named Bob Kantor. It all seems fairly improbable, until you learn that the restaurant’s name- sake is Kantor’s Memphis-born mother and that his father owned butcher shops. Kantor, however, only came to barbecue after years in the culinary business and almost by accident. He was working as a consultant for a restaurant when its owner suggested they put some barbecue on the menu.
“I started doing research, and within a week, it was like something grabbed me and shook me,”‘ Kantor says. And so 11 years ago he began a Frodo-esque journey, a veritable hickory hajj, into the backwoods and back-street citadels and shrines of American barbecue. Kantor recalls a time in East Texas when he was introduced as a Californian, and there were hoots and whoops and shouts as the crowd questioned whether he planned to barbecue tofu and sprouts. Others he met envied his quest, his opportunity to explore and discover the variations in barbecue, from town to town, from wallow to hollow. Indeed, all his peregrinations taught Kantor just how localized barbecue can be. He heard about longtime pit masters using the inner spring of an old mattress to hold. the meat while they estimated the proper smoking temperature by the distance that flies hovered off the top of the pit, 6 inches being optimal. Alas, this particular homegrown technique proved to have more anthropological than practical value. But Kantor emerged from his explorations with a clearer understanding of barbecue and his own place in its cosmography. “I felt like a wandering minstrel, passing the word,” he says. “I’m an unabashed traditionalist, and my overriding concern, in 2004 as I sit here, is that we will lose barbecue in its entirety.” Then he returns to his roots to convey his sense of urgency, declaring, “Barbecue may go the way of the true New York bagel.”
The word barbecue is generally believed to come from the Spanish word barbacoa, which describes a pit-cooking technique fIrst observed in the West Indies. Traditionalists believe that the only true ‘cue is slow-cooked and smoked over wood; anything else is just not the real deal. Still, with that simple standard, there is ample room for divergence and invention. Take the wood. In the Southern tradition of barbecue, hickory is the primary wood and is burned down to coals before the meat-almost always pork-is cooked directly over it. In Texas the preference is to cook indirectly, using whole oak or mesquite logs placed to the side of the barbecue to create a smokier flavor in the meat, which is typically beef. These are only the most broadly drawn variations. Some pit masters use pecan or almond wood. Some only want dry wood, while others mix in green wood to slow the cooking process. And for us, the eating public? Righteous barbecue is whatever you grew up with, be it pulled pork or spareribs, brisket or beef ribs, served dry, in vinegary sauces the shade of a faux Tuscan finish, or in musky, tomato-based tams as dark as a Oaxacan mole.
Kantor believes that many places use their sauces as a way to cover up their lack of smoking technique. He serves four different sauces but leaves it up to the customer to decide which to use and how much to put on the meat. “Sauce could be the demise of true barbecue,” he says. “Speaking as an old-time sexist, I believe that people who think it’s the sauce that makes the barbecue also think that clothes and jewelry make a beautiful woman.”
– Mathew Jaffe | Sunset Magazine • July, 2004