OPINION

The Flatlander

Unlearning Dad's Barbecue

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May is National Barbecue Month.

Or, as I like to call it, Holy Month.

On a recent conference call with writers across the country, I explained how you can take the topic of barbecue and teach all kinds of deeper life lessons. Patience. Anticipation. Community. You can even teach lessons about writing with slow-cooked pork.

Immediately they began shouting the virtues of places like Kansas City, St. Louis, Austin, Dallas, Lexington. I laughed a bit letting them have their way and pretending they knew what they were talking about. Everybody knows Memphis is the home of the planet’s best Que.

There’s a song on the internet about barbecue. The lyrics pretty much sum up my feelings on the topic.

“This is our review of barbecue
In the Southern United States.
And when my life is through, bury me in barbecue,
But make sure it’s vinegar based,
Cause you know that slows decay,
And it’s the style from my home state.
Arkansas!”

Here’s an excerpt from The King of Highbanks Road that speaks to a little of my experience with barbecue:

“If you’re going to say something bad about a person’s barbecue here, you might as well just go ahead and mention his Mama’s fat thighs and the way she sings off key each Sunday in the last stanza of Just as I Am. Barbecue is serious and prideful business in Arkansas.

“Most people believe the key to good barbecue is some secret ingredient or recipe handed down through the generations that stays buried in a Mason jar somewhere out in the chicken yard. Truth is, it’s not the sauce, or the seasonings, or even the meat itself that makes good barbecue.
“The secret to great barbecue is patience, time, and regulated heat that come together for something we call low and slow.

“Some say it was a dear old grandfatherly bearded man in a white suit and black Kentucky tie who invented the extra crispy concept. But this just isn’t true.

“David Watkins was neither patient, nor did he know how to build a charcoal fire that would ever slip below an inferno level of 600 degrees. It’s hard believing how a 50-gallon drum could hold so much heat. Charcoal or gas, it mattered not. The more lighter fluid you could apply, the better, Dad thought. He could turn the finest eats into blackened, dry shoe leather in five minutes. The aftertaste was a delicate lend of ashen wood and petroleum.

“He loved it all the more when the gas grill became popular. You could go from cold to hellishly hot in seconds and cook a burger in two minutes even if it did bleed out in the middle.

“It took 30 years to unlearn everything the man ever showed me about barbecue. But did he ever love playing the role of Saturday afternoon grillmaster.

“His signature move was slathering the meat with cheap sauce, high in sugar content, throughout the process. Bad thing is, high temperatures, charcoal, and sugar rarely mix well. Instead of a moist, finger licking seasoning that compliments the meat, what’s left behind is a black, crunchy, caramelized ash, hard enough that you bring a pecan cracker along rather than a fork and knife. Lick your fingers of this ashen residue and it will make you choke. The surgeon general has issued warnings against products less harmful.

But the pictures of him enjoying his bounty are forever emblazoned in my mind. In his standard seat at our three-person family bar, utensil etiquette was checked at the front door. With both hands, he’d take a leathery pork steak to his mouth,or perhaps a bone-dry chicken breast, and close his eyes savoring the first fruits.

“Lord, ain’t that good,” he’d say, complimenting himself and never really looking at anyone. It was as if he’d just tasted the most succulent poultry dish offered by a three-star Michelin bouchon. The remains always proved his whole-hearted belief. A smooth, perfectly picked pile of bones covered his plate, and chances were good he’d also gnawed a minute or two on what you left behind.

See you in next week’s newspaper.

(Steve Watkins is a reporter/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at steve@stonecountyleader.com)

Steve and Dana Watkins at the 2019 World Championship BBQ Contest in Memphis.
Steve and Dana Watkins at the 2019 World Championship BBQ Contest in Memphis.

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