Houston like any city from Ur to Rome to Hong Kong tells its story through food and those who bring food traditions from around the world to their neighborhood. A Brief History of Houston Barbecue offers such a tale, one where I stir a barbecue sauce in my Houston Heights home and wonder, whose sauce am I making and where did it come from?
First, what is barbecue? This link provides a vivid range of barbecue from Argentina to Korea to South Carolina, from Greece to Texas to Mexico to New Zealand, while also analyzing and critiquing “revisionist” language that would divide and deny the amazing multi-cultural world of smoking, grilling, salting, brining, and rubbing brisket, whole pig, ribs, fish and frogs, deer and sheep, and more. You can think of barbecue as a map, actually a belt like the Bible Belt or Rust Belt, but this being far tastier as revealed in The American Barbecue Regional Style Guide compiled by Eater. Of course, all those regions have ancestors far outside their borders, like barbacoa, which charts one path of smoking and grilling from the Caribbean and the Taíno people who smoked a range of animals and were brought to the edge of extinction by the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century. Besides regions, we can also talk about “Pitmasters” such as Sam Jones of the Skylight Inn BBQ and Rodney Scott of Scott’s BBQ. Master alchemists working with earth, fire and air.
In some ways, this is a question similar to what is your taste in the blues. Chicago?
And all roads leading out of the Mississippi Delta.
However, my focus is on barbecue sauce–itself a cauldron of controversy. A taste inside or across state borders that can stir the pot like vinegar vs tomato, rubbed or sauced, and, of course, to sauce or not to sauce.
Harold McGee, who I often cite for his cultural, philosophical and scientific approach to the kitchen, has an entire section on “Sauce” in On Food and Cooking. His opening immediately finds the joy in how any sauce reveals the personal tastes of a cook.
While the meat or grain or vegetable is always more or less itself, a sauce can be anything the cook wants it to be, and makes the dish a richer, more various, more satisfying composition. Sauces help the cook feed our perpetual hunger for stimulating sensations, for the pleasures of taste and smell, touch and sight. Sauces are distillations of desire. (581)
Another hint of alchemy with “distillation,” a culinary liquid gold. And what of a sauce that is not to be? Barbecue sauce signifies that which is not seen as necessary nor with any stable definition when it is put on the meat or on the table. All depends on who and where you are. In The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue, Daniel Vaughn writes,
The thing is, even though Texas (for example) has a reputation of eschewing barbecue sauce, only a few of the most well-known and revered joints in Central Texas refuse to serve it altogether.
But, by all means, if your nitwit brother-in-law dragged you there and you suspect the meat is subpar, then worship that sauce. You’re gonna need it. (20)
Some sense here of sauce reserved for an inferior barbecuing technique; however, each barbecue tradtion comes with its own sauce and an option to use it. The Professional Chef from the Culinary Institute of America identifies seven distinct barbecue approaches in America.
North Carolina: Pork–the whole hog–is the primary meat for barbecue, and sauces are thin and flavored primarily with vinegar and ketchup or another tomato product.
South Carolina: Also pork, and sauces are also thin and vinegar-based, but flavored heavily with mustard and other spices.
Kansas City: Both beef and pork are popular, and the sauces are thick, sweet, and tomato based.
Texas: Beef and sausages. Known for a thick, smokier sauce flavored with chiles and spices such as cumin.
St. Louis: Pork ribs. A mild tomato-based sauce. Not as thick as Kansas City-style, and not as spicy as Texas-style.
Kentucky: Mutton. Known for its distinctive “black” sauce which is flavored with bourbon, Worcestershire sauce, and molasses. (431)
And then there’s Alabama-Style White Barbecue Sauce.
And Caribbean Barbecue Sauce.
All of this, of course, leads to my Gulf Coast Barbecue Sauce–a sense of terroir when working on the perfect desire grounded in where I live to complement well-smoked meat (of course, using pecan wood). I start with a chile sauce using ancho, pasilla and chipotle chiles that I de-seed and de-vein then rehydrate in boiling water, setting them aside to steep for 15 minutes.
Then, all in the food processor for a spin and whirl with a blade and a purée is in the bowl.
With that taste of the Southwest States and Mexico, it’s time to add some traditional barbecue sauce ingredients from Sean Brock’s Heritage Husk BBQ Sauce: pork stock, apple cider vinegar, ketchup, lemon, brown sugar, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, salt and black pepper. As Brock states, this sauce combines coastal South Carolina and eastern and western North Carolina barbecue traditions. All running into southeastern Texas in one pot.
The sauce is dark, smoky and spicy with a distinct sweetness, perfect to cover broiled okra served with grits and wilted greens with a quick pour of maple syrup.
The next day I simmer beets and I add the resulting combination of water and beet juice to the barbecue sauce–adding another level of sweetness and a dark vegetable flavor.
Which I then pour on top of the beets alongside roasted chicken and okra.
Once a sauce exists, I can add and adjust it to fit the food I’m going to pair with it–truly about the cook’s desire and taste. Bon Appétit!