Louisianians Barbecue too, ya’ll

Barbecue is so deeply ingrained in the psyche of the South that natives from North Carolina to Texas will argue heatedly and endlessly about the merits of their local barbecue traditions. But Louisiana usually gets left out of the conversation. When people think of Louisiana food, barbecue doesn’t readily come to mind. They’re more likely to hunger for shrimp, oysters, crabs, crawfish, gumbo, etouffee, jambalaya – and really, who can blame them?

The word “barbecue” comes from the Spanish and refers to meat or poultry that is slow-cooked over low heat and plenty of wood smoke, generally in an enclosed chamber of some type. Often the food has either been marinated or seasoned with salt and spices before cooking. Basting sauces are applied during the cooking, while barbecue sauces are, essentially, table sauces that are served with the food but are sometimes applied to the meat or poultry in the final stage of cooking to create a sort of glaze.

The truth is that we do prepare and eat a lot of barbecue in Louisiana but it flies under the culinary radar. Louisiana is not like other parts of the South that have clearly defined regional barbecue styles. Because our state is so diverse in population, history and culinary traditions, we don’t limit ourselves to any one type of barbecue.
For some Southerners, barbecue means pork ribs, for others beef brisket, for still others it’s pork shoulder (which, for some obscure reason, is called “Boston butt,”) and some prefer barbecued chicken or sausage. All of these types of barbecue  – as well as a variety of seasonings and barbecue sauces – are alive and well in Louisiana.
One barbecue tradition that is particularly associated with French Louisiana is cochon de lait, a whole suckling pig cooked over glowing coals until the meat is meltingly tender and the skin is crackly crisp. Smoked meats, such as tasso, and smoked sausages also figure prominently in Louisiana cooking. Their origins are usually attributed to German settlers but smoked meats constitute a category of their own and lie a bit outside what we generally think of as barbecue.

In North Louisiana, barbecue traditions take their cue from both the Deep South and Texas. You’d be hard pressed to make a distinction between the typical barbecued ribs or brisket found north of Alexandria and those versions cooked in neighboring Mississippi or Texas.

To even think that Louisianians don’t know barbecue is so far off the mark it’s ridiculous. A few years ago, a new “barbecue” restaurant opened in New Iberia and it looked a little too slick from the outside. In other words, it wasn’t funky enough to qualify as a barbecue joint. Also, there were no woodpiles around the restaurant, which is a dead giveaway. But the nail in the coffin was the fact that there was no smoke. None. You can’t have barbecue without smoke. Every time I drove by, I called out, “Where’s the smoke?” No one ever answered and predictably, the place soon went out of business.

Pelican-state barbecuers are very particular about the kind of wood they use, though there’s no general agreement on the matter. Hickory is preferred by some, oak by others, while pecan and fruit woods have their adherents. Preferences may have to do with what’s available locally. Hickory is plentiful in North Louisiana, but not in the southern part of the state, where oak is easy to come by. A friend in Lafayette who swears by cherry wood has been known to cruise city streets after a storm in search of downed cherry trees. Ghoulish behavior, some might say – but not to a barbecue fanatic.

Louisiana barbecue sauces also cover a broad spectrum. Reddish-brown tomato and vinegar based versions are probably the most common but they vary greatly in degrees of heat and sweetness. In South Louisiana, the mustard-based sauces put out by Jack Miller’s, The Pig Stand and McIlhenny Farms are very popular.

One curious phenomenon is a startling incidence of shootings at Louisiana barbecues. Just this spring, a man fired shots in the air at a New Iberia barbecue, apparently to prevent a disturbance from escalating into something more serious. Fortunately no one was hit. However, last summer one man was murdered and two others were wounded by gunfire at a barbecue in Bastrop. Another shooting occurred last year in Shreveport when two neighbors got into a heated argument at a backyard barbecue on a quiet residential street. One of them swung a golf club at the other man, who pulled a gun and shot him. News reports noted that while police investigated the shooting and the victim lay in critical condition in the hospital, a woman emerged from the house to tend the barbecue. Now, that’s devotion.

Shootings are an extreme form of the passions that barbecue engenders among its partisans but pit masters do develop strong and inflexible opinions about their craft. Barbecue contests and cookoffs even employ standardized rules and judging criteria – a practice that runs counter to the essence of the barbecue experience. After all, part of the appeal of barbecuing is being able to relax with a few cold beers and forget the rules and routine that govern our everyday lives. The irony is that those attracted to the freedom promised by the barbecue pit often develop their own prejudices about what constitutes perfection. As they become the masters of their own fire and smoke, they create a set of rules as limiting as the ones they’re trying to escape.

Personally, I’m a libertarian when it comes to barbecue. I like it all, (the only thing I really dislike is sweet barbecue sauce) and would be hard pressed to pick my favorite, though I lean toward Carolina-style pork shoulder with a vinegar and hot pepper based seasoning. But give me some ribs or brisket and I’m a happy man.

Since barbecue cookers vary so much in design, guidelines for barbecuing can only be very general.

With large cuts of meat, such as pork shoulders, briskets and rib racks, I’ve had the best luck using indirect heat. Build the fire in only half of the cooker and position a foil pan with a little water in it on the other side. When you have a good bed of coals, place the meat on the grill above the pan. This prevents flare-ups and insures that the meat will cook slowly. It’s a long process and requires regular checking to keep the heat even. Turn, rotate and baste the meat from time to time for even cooking.

Smaller cuts of meat and poultry can be cooked directly over the coals but this requires closer attention to prevent flare-ups and burning. If you can adjust the grill, raise it well above the coals. Turn and baste the food frequently and keep a spray bottle of water by your side.

Treat the recipes that follow as mere guides that should be changed and amended at will. Think of them as you would open source software and personalize them until you make them entirely your own.

Dry Rub for Barbecue
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons oregano leaves
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne

Combine all ingredients. Rub meat or poultry generously with mixture before barbecuing. Makes about 1/2 cup.

Basting Sauce for Barbecue
Also called “mopping” sauce, this is applied during cooking to moisten and season the meat or poultry. Fresh hot peppers can be used in place of the dried and fresh or dried herbs can be added, if desired. If you’re cooking a large cut of meat and use a pan to catch drippings from the barbecue, add some of the drippings to the sauce.

2 cups apple cider vinegar
2 cups water
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
8 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive pan, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes. Makes 3 cups.

Barbecue Sauce
1 cup cane vinegar
1 (6 oz.) can tomato paste
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup cane syrup
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
Cayenne to taste

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive pan and simmer, stirring until smooth. Makes 2 cups.