The lid slide off the small cooler as Stephen hoisted it into the overhead compartment. He’d had to lower the locking handle to fit the cooler in, so a gentle bump was all it took for the lid to fall and bonk the gentleman in the aisle seat. Stephen apologized numerously and with genuine repentance, but the man was not placated. Later, as Stephen passed by on his way to the bathroom, the man elbowed him in the hip.
This is proof of a few things: one, that Stephen really loves me. Two, that I really, really love barbecue. We’d taken turns toting the cooler containing just under three pounds of pulled pork and six small, styrofoam tubs of sauce through the airport. He doesn’t love barbecue the way I do; his mouth doesn’t water when he thinks of tender shreds that mingle porky unctuousness with a perfume of smoke. Still, he took his turns carrying the cooler, even letting me slip the lid aside to catch a smoky whiff. Useful, that boy.
I realize I should go back a bit, begin at the beginning. Barbecue, a word so loaded with history and etymology, regionalism and secrecy, it both demands explanation and defies it. Lovers tend toward an intolerable snottiness when they explain it to the uninitiated, so I’ll do my best to be brief. Barbecue, as a verb, means to cook a piece of meat oh so very slowly over an indirect fire, to braise it in smoke, until incomparable tenderness is achieved. Questions of seasonings, dry rubs and sauces, have evaded more serious barbecue scholars than myself, so I’ll stick to technique. Hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, portobello mushrooms, chicken in sticky sauce, any of that cooked on a grate over coals was grilled, not barbecued.
Barbecue, as a noun, can refer to any cut of any animal cooked in such a way, but typically the word is shorthand for something specific, depending on where you’re from. In Texas it means brisket; it’s ribs in Kansas City. Where I have family in North-western Kentucky, they tend toward mutton. I’m from Nashville, and in Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Alabama, if you say barbecue with no modifiers, you probably mean smoked, shredded pork shoulder. We eat those other things too, I’ve seen everything from whole pigs to elk legs thrown in a smoker, but the barbecue closest to our hearts is pulled pork.
Before I left home to live in a number of woefully barbecue-deficient places, I knew I liked it. I just didn’t know how much. Accessibility numbed me to the simple perfection of the food. You go to a drive-thru and pick up a pound, two sides, and either buns or corn light bread: a dinner for four for about twenty dollars at the end of a long summer day. Most people rarely think of this convenience food, common at picnics and family reunions, as art. There isn’t a sign up at Whitt’s, BB’s, or Corky’s explaining that the only two American inventions are barbecue and jazz, and that you’re about the experience the former.
Pigs aren’t picky animals. They’ll live anywhere and eat anything and thrive under a variety of conditions. They were the perfect meat for a fledgling nation perched on the edge of the known world where dirt pits where far more common than kitchens. Some say it grew from the smoke-cooking traditions of Caribbean islanders. We know it was a cuisine of poverty, of slaves and farmers making tough shoulders and ribs palatable, and eventually, sublime.
These days it provides a suitable shorthand for where you’re from. Fistfights have broken out when Memphis natives rolled their eyes over Texas brisket and among Carolinians over whether tomato, mustard, or neither belongs in sauce. Out here on the far edge of that formerly new continent, we feel a special warmth when we meet someone else with that porky glint in their eyes. I met a man last summer who was buying a cast iron dutch oven for his wife.
“She needs it to cook beans to go with the barbecue we’re making,” he said.
I cocked my eyebrow, “I’m from Nashville. Real barbecue?”
He grinned, “She’s from Knoxville. Barbecue.”
So it was with a mania born of long deprivation and the clear-eyed purpose of a zealot that I went through the drive-thru and ordered four pounds of pork and a mixture of hot and mild sauce, no sides. I can make my own slaw, darn it. This was about the meat. We’d eaten barbecue for second dinner in Tennessee, and now we were eating it for our last, with beans, sweet potato fries, and sliced tomatoes sprinkled with coarse salt. I portioned the leftovers into zippy bags and packed them into a cooler, ready to make the 2,000-mile trip west to my freezer.