Food & Drink June 20, 2017

Summertime Sizzle

The complicated simplicity of barbecue

The backyard barbecue: summer’s unequivocal rite of passage. Invite friends, fire up the grill and throw on some ribs. Simple, right? Not so fast.

The term “barbecue” has different meanings to different folks. It seems anyone with a long-handled spatula has an opinion on what is and isn’t barbecue. Purists insist barbecue means cooking low and slow with wood smoke. Moderates think barbecue means cooking over a live fire, whether it’s wood or charcoal. For the hobbyist, barbecue means cooking outdoors—period—wood, charcoal or gas. Good news: everyone is right.

Barbecue is a noun and a verb. As a noun, it’s a thing: A gathering or a meal, where food cooked outside over an open fire is served. It’s also a tool, as in the contraption that holds the fire where the food is cooked. As a verb, it’s an action: meat, fish—or any food—cooked on a … wait for it … barbecue.

Roots of Barbecue

According to Robert F. Moss, author of “Barbecue: The History of An American Institution,” the term “barbecue”—not so much the definition—comes from Caribbean Native Americans. Specifically, the Tanio Indian tribe used the term for a green stick structure that served as a place to smoke and dry meats, as well as a term for a bedding platform (presumably sans fire). The first English version of the word appeared in print in 1661. And Americans have been arguing over what barbecue is ever since.

S17_FOOD_barbeque_steakColonial Americans thoroughly embraced barbecue—the technique—and as we developed into a federation of individual states, barbecue, too, morphed into highly regionalized styles. Much controversy still exists as to which region has the best barbecue. One thing most barbecue experts agree upon: If it is American barbecue, there is smoke, from fire, be it wood or charcoal or both. Cooking hamburgers outdoors on a grill over gas isn’t barbecuing, they insist, it’s grilling.

Idaho doesn’t have a dog in the barbecue hunt. There is no regional style, so the field is wide open in terms of throwing down a backyard barbecue. Go central Texas-style with dry-rubbed, slow-smoked brisket; sauce is optional. Or throw down pork ribs slathered with a sweet molasses sauce and call it Memphis-style. Maybe go whole hog (literally), by smoking a whole pig over hickory wood, then chopping the meat into fine pieces mixed with a tangy vinegar sauce as they do in North Carolina. Swap out the vinegar sauce for mustard sauce, and call it South Carolina-style.

Local Advice

The Wood River Valley has only one barbecue joint, The Smokey Bone BBQ in Hailey, although the Sawtooth Club in Ketchum offers mesquite-fired baby back ribs. Owner and pit master Juan Martinez started out with a pop-up pit around the Valley, and opened his brick-and-mortar restaurant on Main Street in June 2015. Martinez specializes in Texas-style barbecue. He stressed the most important thing in barbecuing, whether you are a novice or barbecue champ, is to start with good ingredients.

“Buy the best meat you can, and for Texas-style, brisket is the best cut of beef to barbecue. You can’t cheat with another cut, like the clod (shoulder). It doesn’t cook the same, or taste the same. Seasoning should be simple: only salt and pepper.”

The real key to great barbecue, he said, is patience. And practice. Martinez said he ruined 20 briskets experimenting with the right combination of temperature, time, and seasoning. After many years, he now can touch a brisket and know that it’s done by the feel of the meat.

Critical Elements for Good Barbecue

Texas takes barbecue seriously. So much so, that the state’s flagship magazine, Texas Monthly, hired a barbecue editor. His name is Daniel Vaughn, and while his post is covering the barbecue trail in the Lone Star state, he has traveled the U.S. in search of great barbecue. Where there is smoked meat, Vaughn is likely to follow.

“Barbecue is the one truly native cuisine we can point to as Americans,” he said. “When you’ve eaten baked or grilled ribs all your life, one bite of a smoked pork rib makes you do a double-take.” Perfecting the art of barbecue, Vaughn said, is “a lifelong task, but there’s a real sense of achievement when you serve your first great backyard brisket.”

Where does one begin to understand the critical elements for good barbecue? Vaughn recommends the online resource Amazing Ribs (, a comprehensive site from renowned barbecue expert and best-selling author “Meathead” Goldwyn. His site leaves no briquette unturned. Want advice on what kind of grill to purchase? You’ll find it on Goldwyn’s site. There are dozens of free articles on equipment, techniques, ratings and reviews, and recipes for the novice to the expert. If you have a question, Goldwyn has an answer.

Summer is short in the grand scheme of things. Fire up the grill—or the smoker—gather friends and family, and make the most of barbecue season. If a passionate conversation about what is or what isn’t barbecue ensues, all the better. Barbecue is, after all, a favorite American pasttime and worthy of a friendly debate.

Barbecue Styles

Within a barbecue region there are many variations, but in general, these are the defining styles for each area.

Alabama — pork and chicken, tangy white (mayonnaise) sauce.
California — specifically Santa Maria, peppered tri-tip grilled over red oak.
Chicago — hot links, rib tips, spicy sweet sauce.
Kansas City — burned ends (brisket and pork), sweet tomato sauce.
Memphis —  pork, heavy smoke, sweet molasses sauce.
North Carolina —whole pig, chopped, vinegar sauce.
South Carolina — whole pig, chopped, mustard sauce.
Texas — beef brisket, salt and pepper, no sauce.

This article appears in the Summer 2017 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.