Confessions of a Conflicted Barbecue Lover

SG | It has taken me 40 years to admit this — or maybe not so much admit as to simply realize a fact — but I can’t really figure out barbecue. More specifically, the sauce. If I had grown up in North Carolina, it would be all too clear: I would either foster a passion for vinegar flecked with red pepper, the purest of the sauces, or I would swear by the Western or Lexington-style variety, helped along by a thin tomato base. East versus West. Simple. Clear-cut.

As it is, growing up in South-central Alabama, we had a thicker tomato-based sauce and that was just fine. In fact it was damn fine. But that was all there was to it. When I got a little older and slightly more worldly, I heard tell of a mustard-based “Carolina-style.” But that’s from South Carolina, and one simply mustn’t put mustard on their pork, must they?

Well, I like it. And for some reason, that makes me uncomfortable in high-brow barbecue circles. Because I really can’t be pinned to one style, yet I’m from a specific region of the South. As such, I liked to think I was a bit of a barbecue expert before leaving the smoky shelter of Alabama. (One note: ribs seem to be en vogue down there these days, and I blame Dreamland. I don’t understand the draw to ribs. Pulled or sliced pork. Maybe chicken. If you’re in Texas, order the brisket. But ribs? Leave that to St. Louis and TGI Fridays.)

Now that I’m out of Alabama, when I declare my love for smoked pork, I’m often asked what style I prefer. I don’t know — tomato-based? Something like that. Not Lexington, per se. Whatever they serve in Alabama.

That worked fine, until I recently learned of “Alabama White Sauce.” Had zero clue this was a thing up until a year or so ago. Now I haven’t had Alabama White Sauce, but I do know it’s mayonnaise that makes it white. Mayonnaise! I can just picture the North Carolina purists clutching their vinegar-smeared chests at such a thought, and oh do I wish I had grown up with it. Then I would at least be able to stand by a sauce more innovative and descriptive than “something with tomato.”

As it stands, here are the facts: For one, it’s barbecue. Not barbeque, and please never BBQ. I don’t know why, but I’m fairly passionate about that. And barbecue is something derived from smoking meat (preferably pork) over a long period of time, of course. It’s not grilling. That’s insulting and not worth any more discussion. And you know what? Just sauce it as you please. If you’ve gotten so far as to smoke the pig, you win; you get it. Put whatever you want on it — something with tomatoes, something with vinegar. Mustard? Sure. Put your damn mayonnaise on it, I don’t care. It’s all pretty much delicious, because it’s on pork that’s been cooking for longer than you’ve been awake.

One more point about barbecue. Please keep it simple and priced accordingly. I was in Lexington this week, as it so happens, and stopped at a long-standing barbecue hot spot near downtown. “Uptown,” as they call it. The smell in the parking lot alone was amazing. Inside, I was welcomed by decades-old rows of Formica-topped tables and red vinyl seats. I ordered a pulled-pork sandwich and potato salad with sweet tea. They didn’t even serve it on a plate. Just put a thin paper placemat down and let me graze off that. And it was marvelous. Dripping with as much authenticity as it was dip sauce.

But then came the bill. $10 for that sandwich and side of potato salad. A full Hamilton. The authenticity evaporated as quickly as my placemat had been cleared and the next starry-eyed barbecue enthusiast could be seated.

So there you have it. I will eat and enjoy whatever barbecue you serve me, as long as it’s not a hot dog or a steak, and as long as you don’t charge me more than $5. If it’s a sandwich, it really should have slaw on it. And bonus points to whoever can get me some White Sauce.

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