As American as BBQ

“Forget baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet.  For a Southerner, it is barbeque.”

Let’s clarify immediately and with great fervor, barbeque is not an event; it is a dish. I don’t care what our Northern neighbors say.  It is not a backyard gathering.  You don’t go to a backyard “barbeque.”  You go to the backyard to eat barbeque. Barbeque is a dish created by the soft whispers of the angels who trod before us and is as close to heaven as I wish to get until death.  Good barbeque is a gift from heaven…it is not a place. Be reverent my children.

It is the morning of July 5th and as I write this, I’m in a barbeque coma courtesy of Carolus’ ribs and Jamie’s pulled pork…and potato salad courtesy of Carol Ann.  Other significant coma contributors included blueberry cobbler and brown liquor.  There were many other contributors and only contributions I would have added would have been mayonnaise and vinegar slaw and hash over white rice but that is a personal choice and not a coma breaker.  It is a tip of the hat to my roots where barbeque came with mustard sauce and helpings of hash over rice.

It was the first Bennett family Fourth of July backyard cookout in two years.  The Bennetts are our adopted family and I’m not sure who adopted whom.  It was good to see folk we hadn’t seen in two years even though there was a bit of “post-Covid” trepidation.   Sitting outside under shade trees and swapping stories soon reduced my anxieties…or maybe it was the brown liquor.

Backyard cookout.  See how I said that?  A backyard cookout.  You go to a cookout…not to a barbeque.  You don’t even have to serve barbeque at a cookout, you can grill things like pork, chicken, beef, roadkill, or tofu.  But grillin’ ain’t barbequin’.  Barbeque is slowly cooked animal parts, pork in my part of the world, over wood coals.  Slow-cooked until the meat just gives up and shreds easily with two forks or falls off of the bone without any help from anything other than gravity.  Sometimes eating high on the hog involves parts found low on the hog.

There is a certain barbeque etiquette.  None etched in stone, and it varies from place to place but it would behoove you to learn the area’s rules before attending a cookout serving barbeque.  See how I said that? 

Generally, the rules involve sauces, rubs, or sides.  It can involve the meat, Texas is mainly beef, for instance, other areas might be a goat or lamb, yuck, but here in South Carolina, it is pork.  I reckon we all eat chicken and you can slow cook yard bird.

There are sauces and then there are sauces.  Nothing to argue over.  Pick one or experiment. Sauce varies here in South Carolina.  Vinegar base, pepper base, both together.  Mustard base, light tomato base, heavy tomato base, depending on the area.   In the home of my mother, the general rule was a mustard sauce with pork, tomato sauce with chicken.

The mustard base is considered by many to be truly South Carolina’s sauce…may be.  German immigrants brought it from the Fatherland to the midlands.  Our new visitors told the older inhabitants they were from Deutschland, which was mistaken as Dutchland, and the reason the fork between the Broad and Saluda Rivers became known as the Dutch Fork. Dutch Fork…Deutsch Fork…”You say toe-may-toe, I say toe-mah-toe.”

The mustard sauce changes to vinegar and pepper sauces on the coast, light tomato, which is vinegar and pepper with tomato added, in the Pee Dee area, heavy tomato in the West and Northwest portions of the state…with a bit of brown sugar, root beer, or brown liquor added…sometimes.  People are mostly steadfast in their allegiance to one sauce although I admit to experimentation on occasion.  If a person serves you an exotic barbeque sauce like that Alabama White Sauce, thank them even if you don’t like it.  It is the Southern way and good etiquette.

Steadfast allegiance but I’m not willin’ to fight a Civil War over it.  No one should argue over sauces.  It is almost like arguing about politics except with politics no one wins.  With barbeque, everybody wins.  Just don’t drown the meat in the sauce.    It is meant to enhance the flavor, not cover it up…unless it is bad barbeque.  One rule etched in stone: Never pre-sauce a sandwich.  The amount of sauce is a personal choice.

Sides?  I’m guessing we could argue all day. In the South, potato salad is a must.  Corn on the cob, fried okra, baked beans, and dill pickles are quite acceptable.  I fancy the pickled medley that includes pickled cauliflower and pearl onions.  Just don’t call it giardiniera.  Sounds too fancy for barbeque and you can leave the pickled carrots out of mine.

To slaw or not to slaw, that might be the question?  I think slaw is a genetic thing.  You are born to put slaw on your pulled pork sandwich, or you are not.  Kind of like sugar or vinegar or mayonnaise in your slaw.  Me…vinegar and mayonnaise and yes, I want it on my sandwich.

Hash or Brunswick stew?  It is pretty much Brunswick stew everywhere other than the Carolinas. Once again, everywhere else is wrong.  It’s hash always.  Unrecognizable pig products cooked with potatoes and onions until they meld together with certain spices passed down by the ghostly hands of our past. Served over rice…white rice of course.

What is not up for debate, fellowship.  You shouldn’t eat barbeque with someone you don’t like which brings me back to the Bennett clan.  I like the Bennett clan.  I taught with the patriarch, Carol Ann, and coached and taught her two sons Jamie and Carolus.  Through them, my bride and I have become members of their extended family.  I’m honored to have been invited to their July 4th celebration. Barbeque reminds me of home and the Bennett clan reminds me of family.  It just doesn’t get much better than that.

I need to take a nap.  My barbeque coma is about to win out.

Barbecue or Barbeque.  I spelled it barbeque because it is a bit archaic, like me, and because it was spelled that way where I grew up.

For books by Don Miller https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3xEUv3gUa4wrDNp0oXEa2Rbv1hcunRf64Zlr3wl2hNbsCYZwGlgIDwNqw

Spinnin’ in Her Grave

I’m sure my grandmother is looking down from the great beyond and shaking her head.  I’m guessing what is left of her earthly body is spinnin’ in her grave.  As soon as she heard that can opener, I visualize a side eyed look below her furrowed brow.  Not only am I cooking canned black-eyed peas I’m serving canned collards to go with them.  If she were still alive, I’m sure I would be disenfranchised. 

My grandmother, Nannie, was not known for her cooking.  She wasn’t into exotic food…I don’t think I ate a pizza until I went off to college.  Pizza…exotic?  Cooter Stew was about as exotic as she got.  But there were lines she would never cross and peas with collards from a can was a line in concrete. 

Peas and collards fit right in with her idea of utilitarian food, with cornbread and a raw onion of course.  Oh, and some of Aunt Alta’s chow chow. Bless my soul, I had forgotten that. Nannie’s meals were made to fortify you for a long day in the field.  Exotic foods weren’t known to stick to your ribs.

In her small kitchen dried black-eyed peas from her fields would have been put in the Dutch oven to soak the night before, picked over to remove shells or gravel that might have “snuck” in.  Drained and rinsed, they would have returned to the Dutch oven along with onions, ham hocks, and seasonings and allowed to slow simmer in water and get to know each other for the next four or five hours.  When the ham hocks were tender, they would be removed, and the meat picked from the bone and fat and returned to the peas. 

Well before the pickin’, fresh collards from her garden would have been washed and rinsed repeatedly, chopped awaiting placement into another Dutch oven.  There they would join up with sauteed, in bacon grease, onion and chopped ham, some broth, apple cider vinegar, and red pepper flakes.  These would hang together until cooked to death. 

An hour before the meal was ready, a cast iron frying pan with a dollop of Crisco would be placed in the old stove to become screaming hot before corn bread batter was poured into it and put back in the oven to cook and brown.  I can remember the sizzle the batter made when it hit the grease and have a mental vision of a tanned and creased, flour-streaked cheek.  I also remember the corn bread to be a tad dry but something to mop the pot likker from my bowl with. 

Tea so sweet it made your teeth ache or fresh buttermilk would wash down the meal.

All told, she spent the better part of half a day to get the meal on the table…which is why I will open a can.  My bride will cook her special brand of cornbread, better than my grandmothers, moister at least…and I’ll mop up my pot likker with it.  I’ll keep the collards and peas a bit healthier and a lot less tasty, all-in hopes of seeing another New Year’s Day or two. We may oven fry some pork chops…the other white meat.

It is about traditions, I reckon Southern traditions in this case.  It is about honoring the past.  As I have quoted before, William Faulkner’s line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

Peas swelling as they cook for luck, greens for money, pork because hogs are always moving forward as they forage, and cornbread for gold is a long running tradition…as is cornbread running in butter. 

In the South, how the tradition began involves two stories of note. Not sure either is true. According to one, during Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War, “bummers” left behind peas and salt pork thinking it was nothing more than animal feed.  Southerners gave thanks for having even that gracious little to get through the winter.  I have my doubts about the story.  It makes no sense to leave even animal feed behind.  It does make for a good story and a reason to celebrate.

According to the second, and I find this more likely, black-eyed peas were a symbol of emancipation for African Americans who were officially freed on New Year’s Day, 1863 by the Emancipation Proclamation.  As the story goes peas were all they had to eat, and it became a symbol.  Again, I am unsure of the story but know former slaves initiated the idea for adding rice to the peas along with bacon, onion, and spices, giving us Hoppin’ John.  That is a good thing whether the story is true or not and has become a favorite Southern tradition of mine.

Yes, the South does have traditions we are not likely to allow to die.  Some I wish would.  Peas and collards isn’t one of them even from a can.  Be sure and eat your peas and collards. 

I hope you have a healthy and prosperous New Year.

Visit Don Miller’s Author’s Page https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR12bCTU7L4-4kWnHyS1zoacryFywuXQm_mLnMXCkCldT08Goh0UKW8dkZY