For the past month or so, National Public Radio has been featuring a project called "This I Believe," airing essays from listeners -- famous people, regular joes, politicians, pipe-fitters and everyone in between -- willing to rise to the challenge of condensing and codifying their personal beliefs. The final product must fit into three minutes, which isn't much space for a big subject. But as long as they confine their sermonizing to the requisite time, people can believe in any damn fool thing they want.
This is a fine concept for a project. It's involving, equalizing; it forces individuals to think through a subject that, for most people and for most of their lives, is just a nebulous, disorganized clutter of notions and half-held convictions that serve as a kind of reflex belief system. The process of putting these thoughts down on paper or committing them to tape helps cement those few things a person truly believes -- the core of a principled life.
I've been hearing the results of this project for the past couple of weeks off and on, during commutes and when I've been out restaurant hunting. Not surprisingly, most essays have dealt with the big topics: truth, love, compassion for one's fellow man, and the inherent goodness of the world. Weighty stuff, to be sure, and usually handled with spirit and good humor. Last week, as I was driving home from a quick pit stop at Big Papa's BBQ on East Evans, I listened to another "This I Believe" segment -- documentarian Errol Morris doing his three minutes on his belief in the search for truth -- and when it was over, I realized that I could do three minutes, too. Not on world peace or anything as grave and serious as that, but on a belief just as true.
My subject was sitting on the seat next to me, in two plastic bags, filling my car with the earthy scent of wood smoke. I thought about it through NPR's world-news roundup, and while the fact that I was very hungry (it's difficult to eat while negotiating rush-hour traffic) probably had a lot to do with my choice of topics in the echelons of faith that govern my life, that didn't make my convictions any less pure.
I believe in barbecue. As soul food and comfort food and health food, as a cuisine of both solace and celebration. When I'm feeling good, I want barbecue. And when I'm feeling bad, I just want barbecue more. I believe in barbecue in all its regional derivations, in its ethnic translations, in forms that range from white-tablecloth presentations of cunningly sauced costillas, to Chinese takeout spareribs that stain your fingers red, to the most authentic product of the tar-paper rib shacks in the Deep South.
I believe in the art of generations of pit men working in relative obscurity to keep alive the craft of slow-smoking as it's been practiced for as long as there has been meat and fire. I believe that there is nothing so simple, or simply enjoyable, as a rack of barbecued ribs presented on a clean white plate, and nothing so uniquely complicated as making those ribs turn out right. A barbecue cook must have an intimate understanding of his work -- of the chemical reactions that occur during the cooking process, the physics of fire and convection, the hard science of meat and heat and smoke -- and then forget it all to achieve a sort of gut-level, Zen instinct for the process. There's a theory that the greatest pit men -- like the greatest painters, the greatest novelists, the greatest scientists -- are born, not made, and that no amount of instruction can ever raise a person without the gene above the level of bush-league plugger. I believe that, too.
Still, there have been many technological improvements in the science of deep-smoking over the years. Aficionados used to be able to pre-judge the quality of a barbecue joint by the wood stacked up out back and the smell of the smoke coming from the chimney, back when the best barbecue was cooked in a pit dug in the ground -- lending to the meats not just the flavor of the wood being burned, but the particular earth in which it lay -- or in a split metal drum. Today we're in a science-fiction world of stainless-steel sealed smokers and custom ovens and grills that look like something out of the old Flash Gordon pulps. While there's been much hue and cry over the loss of traditional cooking methods, I'm no Luddite. I believe that technology is not always a bad thing (the exception being Liquid Smoke, which is always evil incarnate), and that any barbecued meat, no matter its modern provenance, can be judged by its line -- that fading of color down from the brown and blackened rubbed surface of a rib or shoulder cut into a purplish shade of bruise and, finally, a pinky-gray strip of color that shows how deeply the smoke and flavor have penetrated the meat. That's the defining characteristic of any barbecue, whether made in a pit or an industrial kitchen. You can't fake the line; you can't gimmick it. The line is proof of commitment to doing a thing right, and an infallibly accurate measure of taste. Deep line, deep flavor. No line? Just walk away.
At Big Papa's, there's no grizzled old papa standing watch over a hickory fire in the back parking lot, tending to his pit with a poking stick and trusting only his innate sense of when done is done. Although both the East Evans location, which is nearly a year old, and the new kid in Ken Caryl are little storefront outfits, they run more like fast-food factories, keeping things moving quickly, almost cafeteria style, with rarely more than ten minutes going by from the moment you order to the moment you begin eating. With barbecue, this speed is made possible only by the intelligent application of technology and mass-production methods. As you stand at the counter, you can see the big stainless-steel smokers in the back, can see guys loading and pulling trays of meat all day, every day. The ribs, the brisket, the chicken and turkey breasts and link sausage get ten, twelve, fourteen hours of straight hickory smoke before they're done, wrapped and packed away in the coolers.
By then, though, the line runs deep. I'd put a rack of Big Papa's modern, strip-mall baby-backs -- dry-rubbed, slow-smoked and technologically porkerific -- up against a traditional pit smoker's best any day. I don't believe they'd win all the time, but neither would Big Papa's embarrass itself.
Big Papa's further separates itself from the scrum of competing barbecue enterprises with its sauces, each an attempt to re-create a mop associated with one of the four centers of the American barbecue universe. There's a sweet, sticky, dark and molasses-rich Kansas City sauce that overwhelms everything it touches; a pale, South Carolina-Georgia mustard base, stingingly tart and faithful to the biting, fast-hit sharpness preferred by those eating in the middle North of the barbecue belt. The Deep South sauce is something of a cop-out, compromising regional integrity by offering a little spice, a little vinegar and a little molasses without allowing any of the elements to step forward boldly. But the tomato-and-brown-sugar Memphis mop is a dance-hall standard, all jazz and rock and roll, perfectly tuned to bring the peppery spice and tough-love sweetness into balance with the hickory smoke and natural flavors of any meat it touches. This is an artisan sauce, a beautiful blending of old Memphis sweet and new Memphis heat, and if I had access to some hospital supplies, I'd hang a bag of it from an IV rack and haul it around with me everywhere I went, dosing everything from my morning Wheaties to my midnight snacks.
The one important sauce that Big Papa's is missing (and a vital provincial offshoot of traditional barbecue culture that's underrepresented everywhere outside its home, not just in Papa's kitchen) is the eastern North Carolina tidewater sauce -- the vicious vinegar-and-red-pepper concoction that makes for the greatest pork sandwiches in the world. In choosing to go with the more acceptable and universally palatable Southern mustard base as the exclusive Carolina representative of the barbecue spectrum, I think Big Papa's skipped a chance to do something truly original. And I believe that sucks.
Sauce aside, I believe that the best barbecue sandwiches come on slices of pasty-white Wonder Bread with pickles on the side, so I was concerned when Big Papa's kitchen went all froufrou on me, putting my brisket po'boy on French bread. But then I tasted it, getting a mouthful of fatty, smoky, perfectly done beef, neither too dry nor too damp nor too anything except wonderful, and fell in love. I still like my white-bread sandwiches, but now I believe that sometimes change is okay.
I believe that good barbecue requires no decor, and that the best barbecue exists despite its trappings. Which is fortunate, because there's not much to say for the dining room at the original Big Papa's. A few black-and-white prints on the walls, some framed awards, plain tables and a counter. That's it. I believe that well-tended and plainly presented 'cue could make a tin-roof shack with pine-box tables and milk-carton chairs feel like a palace, and that too much fuss makes the barbecue gods pissy.
I believe that paper plates are okay in a barbecue joint. And paper napkins. And plastic silverware. I believe that the fact that Big Papa's uses real plates (cheap and plain white, but more china than Chinet) and serves sit-down orders on plastic cafeteria trays comes dangerously close to putting on airs.
I believe that good barbecue needs sides the way good blues need rhythm, but that the sides are almost ancillary to the experience. There's only one rule: Whatever you serve, make it fresh. Have someone's mama in the back doing the 'taters and hush puppies and sweet tea, because Mama will know what she's doing -- or at least know better than some assembly-line worker bagging up potatoes for Sysco.
Big Papa's stumbles here. There's no cornbread on the menu, and what's barbecue without cornbread? Instead, I tried sweet-potato casserole that wasn't a casserole at all, but rather puréed sweet potatoes jacked up with brown sugar and served like mashers. The mashed potatoes were forgettable, the steak fries just a step up from frozen, and the hush puppies not a step up from anything -- just small, hard and as unappetizing as fried golf balls. The mac-and-cheese was fine and gooey and smoky, though, and the fried okra done as right as the hush puppies were wrong. And the barbecued beans? Made in-house from sauce and scrap and leftovers, they were so deeply down-home and wonderful, I could still taste them days later.
I believe that if you don't get sauce under your nails when you're eating, you're doing it wrong. I believe that if you don't ruin your shirt, you're not trying hard enough.
I believe that proper barbecue ought to come in portions that assume anyone putting in an order has to have special steel-belted pants made to contain his or her planetary girth. Skinny people can eat barbecue, and do, but the kitchen should cook for a fat man who hasn't eaten since breakfast. Big Papa's scores big on that one; my leftovers should last for days.
And when those leftovers are just a memory, when all is said and done, and all that's left are bones and heartburn, I believe -- I know -- that I'll return to Big Papa's. Because there is no such thing as too much barbecue. Good, bad or in between, old-fashioned or high-tech; it doesn't matter. The only thing I don't believe about barbecue is that I'll ever get enough.
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