Come summertime, everybody is a little Southern. We go fishing, we drink beer in the can, we wash our cars … and we eat loads of barbecue. I happen to be Southern for the other 273.75 days, too (though not presently practicing below the Mason-Dixon), and for me barbecue is of great concern. It is the food of my heart and the reason for my gut.
Barbecue is also a controversial subject, and we need to clear up a few misconceptions about it.
First item of business: "Barbecue" can mean a style of cooking, a way of eating, and even what's being eaten; the word is used as a noun, verb, and adjective. To wit: I barbecue my barbecued barbecue at a barbecue. Barbecue is an international phenomenon: Indians have tandoori, Japanese yakitori, Greeks souvlaki. But when I say "barbecue," I'm talking about the kind of live-fire cooking popularized in the American South. It was popularized there because of the year-round hot weather, but mostly because of Caribbean and African people who invented it and brought it to places like Texas, Tennessee, and Missouri.
Second item of business: People confuse barbecuing with grilling all the time, but they're not the same; in fact, they're opposite. Grilling is cooking something at high heat directly over a flame. It's fast, it's very hot, and the food is on top of the fire. Barbecuing is cooking something slowly, over indirect, low heat, such as a firebox that is attached to but not part of a pit. "Slow and low" are the keys to barbecue—slow time, low heat.
Third, and most important, item of business: All over Southern states, barbecue is unique. Carolinians argue over east Carolina (vinegary, peppery sauce) versus west Carolina (tomato-based sauce) versus southern Carolina barbecue (mustard-based sauce). In Texas alone, cooks barbecue in literally hundreds of different ways. In short, there are millions of people who will swear up and down that if you don't barbecue their way you're doing it wrong.
At the risk of offending all of them, I say when you're in your backyard this summer, it doesn't matter which barbecue style you prefer. When we're wearing our bathing suits and Hawaiian shirts, we have little concern over West Texas versus East Texas: We throw sauce on ribs or pork shoulder (or, OK, chicken) and relax. What matters to most home barbecuers is one simple thing: good sauce.
Now, there's a magnificent array of barbecue sauces in your local grocery store. Even my crappy Manhattan one stocks a dozen. My mother's supermarket in Atlanta has almost 50. To further complicate the agenda, many, many barbecue joints great and small hawk their own sauces. I wondered if these specialty brands (mostly mail- or Internet-order only) were better than the kind in my crappy grocery. Inquiring expat stomachs want to know.
The History According to The Great Barbecue Companion, a wonderful book by Bruce Bjorkman (columnist with the National Barbecue News and a former judge at the Memphis in May World Barbecue Championship), tomatoes are the first ingredients in most popular national brands. Bjorkman also gives us little a history of barbecue sauce in America: In the 1950s, J.L. Kraft Co., producers of cooking oils, introduced the concept of barbecue sauce by affixing bags of spices onto bottles of cooking oil.
This, from Bjorkman, is what I asked my judges to keep in mind—"sauces are meant to complement your cooking, not hide it. View barbecue sauces as condiments, the same way mustard and ketchup enhance a hotdog. Barbecue sauce should help draw out the flavor of your barbecue and grilled meats, not overpower it."
12 barbecue sauces: six from well-known U.S. barbecue restaurants; six from my crappy grocery store