Like my father before me, I worship at the Church of Barbecue. I live in a place with long, serious winters, so I don't get to practice my faith year-round, but I try to make up for it with frequent, sometimes nightly, services during the more temperate months of the year. The instant the temperature creeps above 50 degrees, or even remotely feels like it's warmish, out comes the Hasty-Bake or the Weber (more about these two essential pillars of my faith, and the differences between them, later) from the garage, and on go the ribs or the steaks or the chickens or the game hens or the ducks or the pork loins or the sausages or what have you.
Though I consider myself to be an observant and devout practitioner of my faith, my father is the undisputed High Priest. Daddy's brisket has been known to make grown men and women fall to their knees, their eyes rolling in their heads, incoherent groans of ecstasy issuing from their mouths. And that's nothing compared to the fervor elicited by his whole smoked chickens or his bone-in pork loin with mango sauce. It was my father who introduced me to the mysteries of our faith, and who continues to inspire me by his righteous example.
Barbecue is a messy, complex religion, with various branches and offshoots.My family and I are members of the Dry Rub Communion. Think of us as the Protestants of barbecue — the protest being against all that needless drowning of innocent meat in goopy, over-spiced tomato sauce. Surely no beast deserves such an ignominious end to its existence, and no diner (with the possible exception of a few members of our current Administration) deserves to have such heresy practiced upon them.
For the purist, kosher salt and coarse, fresh-ground pepper make the essential dry rub. Depending on the meat and the desired flavor, I substitute Lawry's Seasoned Salt or Tony Cachère's Cajun seasoning for regular salt. Whatever you use, be generous with it; the God of Barbecue abhors parsimony in all its forms. Leave the seasoned meat at room temperature, covered loosely in plastic wrap, for an hour or two before cooking.
While we're speaking of my God's likes and dislikes, I should say a few words about charcoal. Don't even think of using those pressed, reconstituted, chemical-soaked briquettes you see at the supermarket.They are, simply, tools of the devil meant to tempt the unwary with promises of "easier lighting" and "longer burn time." Turn away from them! Better yet, cast off your old grill and go get a new, virginal one that has never been contaminated by them. And from that moment forward, use only real, natural, hardwood charcoal. Real charcoal is not uniformly squarish in shape; it resembles charred wood, which is exactly what it is. Real charcoal does not impart a chemical taste to food, because it is not made of chemicals and additives. True, it does burn a little faster than Satan's Briquettes, but that is a small price to pay for barbecue that causes people to moan aloud in ecstasy. Some grocery stores carry it, and many hardware stores. Seek it out. Two brands I like are Cowboy Charcoal (easier to find) and Royal Oak (bigger pieces, longer burning).
Once you have the proper charcoal, don't even think of dousing it in lighter fluid.This is like helping an elderly woman across the street and then running over her in your car. Lighter fluid can contain butane, propane, naptha and benzene and all sorts of other nasty chemicals you don't want ending up (even in tiny amounts) in your food. I use an electric firestarter, a metal loop I lay under the charcoal until it's caught fire. It's a little bit of a hassle — you have to use an extension cord and plug it into an electrical outlet — but when was true faith ever daunted by a little hassle? Some people prefer those cones you fill with charcoal and light underneath with newspaper, but I don't like them. The sparks have an alarming tendency to fly up very high, and I figure even the world's tastiest barbecue isn't worth burning down my house for.
Seven hundred and four words, and I haven't even touched on the holy trinity of barbecue: the Weber, the Hasty Bake, and the Big Green Egg! Much less the various woods that should and should not be used for smoking, the glazes for glazing, the cooking strategies required for various meats (which are as unique in their needs as souls), and the all-important inspirational music that should be played during services. How time flies when one is sermonizing...
Until next time then. Keep the faith. Rub dry or die.
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Hillary Jordan grew up in Dallas, Texas, and Muskogee, Oklahoma, and received her MFA in fiction from Columbia University. Mudbound, her first novel, was awarded the 2006 Bellwether Prize, founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize literature of social responsibility. It was also the second title in Powells.com's new Indiespensable subscription club.
Books mentioned in this post
Hillary Jordan is the author of Mudbound: A Novel