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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 June 2005, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Slow cooking, American style

By Stephen Evans
BBC North America business correspondent

The British people have taken to barbecuing in a big way in recent years, but Stephen Evans has found this form of cooking is seen in a completely different light on the other side of the Atlantic.

barbecue
Where there's smoke... there's barbecue

New York used to be a bit of a culinary desert.

It is true you could get many foods here - Peruvian or Ethiopian or something called "Nuevo Latino" or even British - Salt and Battery - a fish and chip shop on 2nd Avenue, if you want to know.

But what you had a hard job finding was the greatest cuisine this country produces.

I refer, of course, to barbecue - not what the rest of the world thinks of as barbecue where a slab of meat is thrown on a grill over high flame for a short time.

That is not barbecue, that is grilling.

Barbecue is low and slow.

Slow cooking

It is essentially pork ribs or beef in Texas - covered in a wet, spicy marinade or rubbed with dry spices - and then smoked in a covered drum or over a pit of embers.

The taste and the smell was divine, a mixture of wood smoke and meat tender enough to melt
Hard woods like hickory, oak or mesquite are used and when the flames have died to nothing, the meat is put in the smoky chamber from dawn to dusk.

A 10lb (4.5kg) piece of beef brisket, for example, demands at least 10 hours of low, slow smoking.

Anyway, barbecue has just come to New York City in the form of a festival.

The country's great pitmasters hitched their smokers - great cast-iron tubes with chimneys - to their pick-up trucks and set up stall in Madison Square Park.

There they served New Yorkers a feast.

Mike "Sarge" Davis from the Whole Hog Cafe in Little Rock, Arkansas, offered St Louis spare ribs from his trailer.

Otis Walker from Smoki O's in Missouri served Pig Snoot sandwich - pig's nose, to you and me, delicious and crisp.

Pitmaster Michael Rodriguez of the Saltlick BBQ in Driftwood in Texas offered brisket sandwich.

Americana

And the taste and the smell was divine, a mixture of wood smoke and meat tender enough to melt.

Meat
Barbecue borrows from native, Spanish and African culture
But also something else - a piece of Americana.

You felt like you were eating history, sharing a land. This was not just food. This was a people and a culture.

Barbecue is essentially Southern - Deep South Dixie, plus Texas.

Its origins are unclear, though a Spaniard in 1526 described what the Indians called "barbacoa" when they roasted meat on sticks over fire.

The first hogs, by the way, were deposited in the Americas - in Cuba - by Christopher Columbus in 1493.

Waves of emigrants adapted this cuisine of the Spanish conqueror, and native Americans.

Slaves from Africa added spices.

For rich and poor

In central Texas around the town of Elgin, they barbecue sausages where the Czechs and Germans settled.

In Memphis, Tennessee, there is kosher barbecue.

Jews there, and there is a big Jewish community in Memphis, got so tantalised by the smell of barbecued pork that they developed their own style with beef.

I love barbecue because it is authentic, un-pretentious cooking, redolent of place and people
Barbecue remains stratified.

When I went to Alabama recently, there were black barbecue stalls and white barbecue stalls with people of one colour rarely crossing the divide.

Though it is said that during segregation - only 50 years ago, when any meeting of the races was actually against the law - black and white would rub shoulders and chew ribs at the back of barbecue places, united illegally by a love for the food.

It is for the moneyed and the poor.

If you stop at a highway stall in the South, you will see a man in a tie leaning against his Lexus, trying to keep the sauce from dripping down his white shirt alongside a mechanic chomping in his pick-up truck.

Class can intrude, though. There is a Southern saying if a woman is a bit grand, "She's a quiche lady in a barbecue town".

So, what is the appeal?

Firstly, it tastes great - tender pork ribs or beef in Texas, moist but with the fat drained away by hours of cooking.

Secondly, there is a whole aroma of association.

Taste of home

I met the great broadcaster and Texan, Dan Rather, at the New York festival.

Barbecue for him is about memory - personal childhood memories of his grandmother knocking a tree above a barbecue pit to clear it of snakes before cooking.

And folk memory.

Dan Rather believes that you cannot understand America without having some feel for the way the West was opened and the aroma of wood-smoke evokes this ancient emotion.

Maybe.

I love barbecue because it is authentic, unpretentious cooking, redolent of place and people. And taste, of course.

Always remember, contrary to what they say, America is the home of slow food.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 June, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



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