By Kurt Michael Friese
No type of cooking inspires as much passion, competition, obsession, and plain old American hometown pride as barbecue. There are local, regional, and national ‘cue contests that bring together hundreds of pathologically devoted cooks and thousands of BBQ-scarfing chowhounds to debate about which wood to use and to lie about their recipes.
Barbecue may, in fact, be the original way to cook. Historians believe man’s ancestors first ate cooked meat by scavenging in the aftermath of forest fires. More recently, Spanish conquistadors “exploring” tropical islands were fascinated by the aromas coming from the small green-wood grills New World natives called barbacoa. From these origins came the huge variety of barbecue that exists around the world. No other country, though, pursues the ‘cue with such passionate abandon as the United States.
First thing’s first: Barbecuing and grilling are not the same thing. Grilling is done over high, direct heat for a short amount of time, and might even use heat from gas or electricity. Real barbecue requires patience. It’s done over low, indirect heat–usually 200 F to 300 F–and can take from two hours to a couple of days, depending on the size of the meat. True ‘cue also needs smoke from hardwood chunks or chips that have been soaked in water and which impart signature flavor to the meat. This is America’s true slow food.
Because good barbecue needs smoke and an indirect heat source, serious ‘cue aficionados use a smoker to take advantage of an adjacent fire. You can mimic this with a typical backyard grill. For a charcoal grill, pile the coals to one side, add the soaked wood directly to the hot coals, and place the meat on the unheated side. For a gas grill, light a couple of the burners on one side, place soaked hardwood chips in a smoker box or foil pouch over the flames, and set the meat over the unheated side.
While there are many talented barbecue enthusiasts here in Iowa, where I live, it is perhaps a bit surprising that Iowa does not have a rich barbecue tradition all its own. We have all the necessary ingredients: pork and beef, an abundance of hardwoods like oak and hickory, hot summers and hungry people. Still no one particular form is labeled as “Iowa ‘cue,” so we borrow nearly everyone else’s traditions and will barbecue nearly anything that moves and a few things that don’t; any excuse to play in the smoke.
Among the favorites is Texas-style beef brisket. Down there the wood would have to be oak or mesquite, but we have lots of different choices up here and I am especially fond of the fruit and nut woods, which produce sweeter smoke than oak or mesquite. I used cherry and pecan wood to smoke this Barbecued Beef Brisket.
For the beginning ‘cue chef, hardwood chips are sufficient for flavor and ease of use, and used with a smoker box or even a simple foil pouch they can convert any gas grill into a makeshift smoker. Wood chips are available in most grocery stores and anywhere grills are sold. If you want to get serious about your ‘cue, though, Iowa boasts one of the best resources in the country. Check out Hawgeyes BBQ in Ankeny for everything you’ll need and then some.
So here are my secrets to true ‘cue: Low heat, real wood, smoke … and hefty shot of patience.
Kurt Michael Friese is the founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, serves on the Slow Food USANational Board of Directors, and is editor and publisher of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He’s also Chef and co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay, a freelance food writer and photographer, and author of A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland.