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America's Best BBQ Restaurants

Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City, Illinois.
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Photo: Courtesy of Oklahoma Joe's

Barbecue: A Brief (25 Millennia) History

What is it about barbecue? Historians tell us that for 250,000 years, man has applied low, slow heat to proteins to make them meltingly tender and delicious. Christopher Columbus discovered the Taino people of modern-day Haiti cooking fish and meats on a grate of sticks lashed together and suspended above a fire, and dousing their food with a scorching chili sauce. Portuguese and Spanish explorers in the New World found American Indians practicing a similar culinary art, and as waves of European settlers and enslaved Africans landed in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, they adapted the technique to the food traditions they brought from their homelands and the raw materials of their new environment. Germans who settled in the Hill Country of Texas smoked fat pork sausages over mesquite or oak of the region. In Kansas City, a cow town at the crossroads of several important early trade routes, the abundance of pecan and hickory meant that deeply smoky beef brisket and ribs came to define the city’s style. Barbecue emerged as something more than heating and seasoning protein—it became culture.

Every morsel of barbecue tells a story, starting with the meat: if it’s sausage, you’re in or around Austin, Texas. Mutton? Owensboro, Kentucky. Whole hog might be eastern North Carolina, western Tennessee, or upstate South Carolina, depending on which hardwoods you’re using and how you seasoned your pork. Did the pit master put a dry rub of black pepper and salt on it before laying it over the coals? Did he baste it once it was on the heat, and if so, with what kind of liquid? Did he turn the pig before it was done, and did he dress it with sauce before it was served? Every decision a contemporary pit master makes might be rooted in tradition, in the choices our ancestors made; and even today these regional differences hold up.

We’d set out on a 3,000-mile odyssey, exploring the contours of American barbecue the way hikers thrill to the changing topography of the Appalachian Trail. We were in search of the ultimate barbecue, of course, but more than that, we were on a quest to determine what perfect barbecue might mean in 2009. We had notions of the quintessential barbecue joint: family-run (with a few generations on site, preferably), with an authentically acquired patina of age. We were fairly sure the barbecue of our dreams would come from a dwelling with a certain undersung-ness about it (and likely not a place with a punning or deliberately alliterative name, like Swineomite or Peter’s Piggy Palace).

But for the sake of our journey, we set out with open minds, hungry mouths, and—did we mention?—a 1972 Buick Limited. We’d seen the ad for the gold-colored, black-vinyl-topped Limited online about a month before our departure. It only had 90,000 miles on the clock, and we watched as the asking price dropped, then dropped again as our departure date approached. About a week before we left, we sent a check for the car, sight unseen, to a guy named Mick, in Stillwell, a suburb of Kansas City.

Why a 36-year-old, 6,000-pound car, when gasoline prices were running at an all-time high? Because our quest defied common sense, and we needed a vehicle to match. The Buick had compelling features beyond its 455 V-8 engine and black brocade interior. Namely, four cigarette lighters—critical because we were packing our phones, one laptop for note-taking, another for downloading photos, and a small A/C car refrigerator (we’d be ordering a lot of barbecue, tasting lightly, and would want to keep samples for comparison). But more than all that, piloting the old American workhorse, demanding vast quantities of vigilance, time, and fuel, seemed to project a oneness with the ’cue.

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