10 Things We Learned During Our Year Of Barbecue Across America

During the past year, it's been my pleasure to travel the country learning about regional barbecue traditions and sharing my findings with Food Republic readers. The experience has been very positive for everything except my lipid counts, and I hope my general practitioner doesn't visit this site too often. As we wrap up the year-long series, here's a recap of the most interesting things to emerged from the smoke:

1. Sam Jones of Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC is an absolute quote machine

The affable Jones is the third generation pitmaster at one of the most popular bbq joints in eastern North Carolina. In my profile of Jones and his rotunda-topped restaurant, he offered these bon mots about the barbecue biz:

  • On utilizing as much of the pig as possible thanks to his whole hog cooking method: "If we could bottle the squeal, we'd use that."
  • On his father's resistance to change, to the point of having to fight to add a chicken sandwich as a fourth item on the menu: "I'm surprised my daddy didn't give my two sisters the same name."
  • On the changes in his supply of protein sources: "We've bred the leanness into them – not the way the good Lord meant pigs to be. You have to have fat on a hog to make barbecue. But this is 2012, so we call it natural juices."

Later in the year when I encountered Jones again cooking a whole hog for the assembled crowd at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, MS, I asked him if he was ever worried about wood chips from his heavily scalloped cutting board getting mixed up with the meat as he chopped violently away. He was using two heavy cleavers to convert quarter pigs into delicious chopped sandwiches. He replied proudly, "Our wood chips taste better than most folks' barbecue."

2. Alton Brown may know a lot about cooking pigs, but his spelling could use work

At that same Symposium, the Mr. Wizard of the kitchen taught an illuminating class on his method of cooking whole hogs. Basically, he treats the carcass as a giant cauldron of liquid and seeks to simmer the fat out of it as slowly as possible. But when choosing a pig, he tries to select one that maximizes tastiness, tenderness and juiciness, which Brown referred to as the "Three T's." Err...that's two "t's" and a "j," professor.

3. New Yorkers have access to some mighty fine urban barbecue, but...

4. ...they sure go crazy when the barbecue badasses visit Madison Square Park every July

5. Be careful if you order Hawaiian BBQ, or you might end up with a plate of grilled spam

The tradition of Hawaiian BBQ is actually more of a plate lunch of rice, macaroni salad and a protein that could turn out to be a hamburger patty with eggs and gravy. (Not that there's anything wrong with that...) If you really want a pig cooked low and slow in the islands, look for Kalua pork.

6. The best barbecue in the country comes from Texas

At least if you prefer beef ribs, brisket and smoked sausage. Or if you're talking to a Texan. Really, you're probably just gonna end up listening to a Texan, but you can find some mighty fine meat in the area around Austin.

7. The best barbecue in the country comes from Memphis

For sheer volume of outstanding pork rib joints and sammich shops in one town, it's tough to beat the Bluff City. If you disagree with the notion that Memphis is #1, you'd better not talk to Desiree Robinson at Cozy Corner. As gracious as she may appear on the outside, the woman packs heat.

8. Owensboro, KY is not a good place to retire if you're an elderly sheep

The Kentucky treat of BBQ mutton may not be for everyone, but the rich flavor of older lambs smoked over hickory and mopped with salt water, peppers and vinegar is a unique experience that every barbecue aficionado should try at least once.

9. You may be certain that your barbecue sauce could kick Sweet Baby Ray's ass, but good luck with that...

The sauce business is a shallow money trench where three manufacturers enjoy the vast majority of market share and upstarts come and go like YouTube sensations, only with less prospects for actually making a profit. In my profile of Dave Raymond, Sweet Baby Ray himself, he offered some sage advice, "If you like making sauce, don't get into the sauce business. You have to wear too many hats to actually cook anymore."

10. It is actually possible to eat too much barbecue

When I judged the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue competition for the second time, I learned a lot since my first year. If you take just one bite from every dish presented to you for judgment, you're looking at over two pounds of meat. So no matter if that first chicken thigh is the most delicious thing you've ever put in your mouth, limit yourself to just enough to judge it fairly. That's why I brought gallon-size plastic bags. I told you I learned something...