Not many American traditions are more cherished than barbecue. It’s a peculiarly unifying cuisine, in that most of us can agree we love it, and historically, it’s crossed geographical, political, and social borders. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be divisive; what one person calls barbecue another might scoff at, and the sauces inspire the kind of visceral devotion that’s usually reserved only for college sports teams.

Cruise through the condiments aisle at the grocery store and you’ll find an assortment of sauces to rival your local dive’s assortment of, well, sauces. With the advent of the reality television era, barbecue even has its celebrities on the small screen, thanks to shows like Discovery Channel’s wildly popular Pitmasters. And Pitmasters itself is just a minor indication of the larger competitive barbecue scene that exists all over the U.S. For some people, it’s an occasional weekend jaunt, while for others, it’s a way of life: they meet there, even marry there, and travel the four corners of the country in search of glory, prize money and a smoking good time.

What is it about good barbecue that’s so compelling? And is it really such a secret? To find out, I talked to a handful of our local barbecue teams, who compete all over the state—serving hundreds of people at a time—and are already gearing up for April’s Suncoast BBQ Bash right here in Venice, which, for the uninitiated, is a Florida Barbecue Association-sanctioned event with a $10,000 purse.

First, though, a little history might be in order. In the colonial days, Southerners ate a lot of pork; wild pigs were plentiful, though notoriously tough. Somewhere along the way, by the most widely-accepted historical accounts, they were introduced to a West Indian slow-cooking technique called barbacoa, and thus barbecue was born. The beauty of it, of course, is that almost anything can be made tender and flavorful by slowly smoking it. Over the years, the technique spread and adapted itself to local customs: Texans, for example, barbecue beef briskets and love spicy sauces; more recently, barbecued chicken has also become a staple.

Let’s also get out of the way what barbecue is not: it’s not throwing meat on a grill and dousing it with half a bottle of KC Masterpiece. High heat and barbecue are mutually exclusive, like oil and water. Instead, get ready for the two words that define barbecue as a cooking technique, and that were echoed many times over by everyone I spoke to: low and slow. The simple essence of barbecue is nothing more than cooking meat at low temperatures, over an indirect heat source, very slowly—sometimes for as long as 12 or 18 hours—after which it’s juicy, delicate and literally falling off the bone.

Low and Slow: The Way to Go

So just how low and slow are we talking about? I asked Bryan Corrigan and his brother, Tiernan, who were born and raised in Englewood and cater and compete as Off-the-Bone Barbecue. The Corrigan brothers’ first competition ever was last year’s BBQ Bash, judged by Myron Mixon himself, in which the two took 10th place in pork—quite a coup for a first effort.  “It’s a fairly small temperature window,” Bryan told me. “You never want to go lower than 225, but you don’t want to go higher than 300, either. You really have to pay attention to stay in that sweet spot.”

I wondered, though, whether that was really possible for the weekend barbecuer, who likely doesn’t have thousands of dollars—or even hundreds—to smoke on a professional smoker. “Absolutely it is,” said Bryan. “You can buy a decent small smoker for under $50 at big outdoors retailers. They’re not perfect, but if you get to know it, you can learn to get good results.”

As for the slow part, you can usually expect to be smoking your meat for at least four hours. Bigger cuts of meat, like turkeys, take more like six or eight (count on the Corrigans to have a barbecued Thanksgiving). Here’s the thing, though: with barbecue, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Knowing how long a cut of meat will take, and when it’s done, is a knack that has to be developed over time.

Take David Clark, for instance. He’s a competitive barbecuer from Venice, who works for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department. (His ultimate goal is to make it to Pit Masters, and he’s well on his way, so keep your eyes peeled.) At his second-ever barbecue competition at Hope Sound (his first was the BBQ Bash), he took first place in ribs—and that was competing against some of Florida’s fiercest BBQ heavyweights. That day, though, he only had to cook his ribs three hours before they were perfect. “You just never know,” he laughed. “One weekend you’ll take first place, and the next weekend, you’ll do the exact same thing and they won’t turn out at all. That’s barbecue for you.”

It’s not just the low heat that imparts to barbecue its deliciousness, though; barbecue cookers aren’t called smokers for nothing, and the smoky flavor is a huge part of what gives barbecue its depth. How does one achieve it? First, say the Corrigans, never use lighter fluid—it’s loaded with chemicals that will positively ruin the flavor of the meat. They use oak, and, as a special local twist, fragrant Florida citrus wood. David, who competes as Corky’s Smokin’ BBQ, uses charcoal briquettes for heat, plus a mix of hickory, cherry and apple chips for a rich, robust flavor.

The Secret's in the Sauce

If the cooking method is out-in-the-open enough, here comes the part of barbecue where the jealously guarded secrets lie: the sauces. In the old days, recipes were passed down through generations, and were seldom written down so they couldn’t be stolen. Pit men who ran successful barbecue joints often worked alone so their secrets wouldn’t be divulged.

These days, though, sauces aren’t always as important as they used to be, for the simple reason that the meat is better. Gone are the days when barbecue was the only way to make palatable the gristly, sinewy wild hogs that skulked around the scrubby underbrush of the southern states. Barbecue has become a gastronomic delicacy, and barbecuers select the best cuts of meat and carefully trim them. “I like to serve my sauce on the side, to let customers—and judges—decide whether they want it,” David Clark told me. The Corrigans agreed; in some cases, too much sauce is a sign there’s a flaw in the meat.

Historically, sauces have been tied to different regions in the south. In North Carolina, sauces were vinegar-based; in South Carolina, they were mustard-based. The sweet-style, tomato-based sauces originated in Tennessee, where molasses was a common ingredient. And in Texas, of course, they like it spicy. Here in Florida, where we’re such a melting pot, sauce recipes are likely to be more personal than anything else. David Clark comes from an old Sarasota family and his grandfather grew sugar cane. He incorporates cane syrup from those very fields into many of his sauces, and he also likes to brush some on his ribs during the last stages of cooking, when it caramelizes and forms a tantalizing crust.

Back Woods Barbecue is another catering and competitive team in Venice, made up of Greg Collins, also a Sheriff’s deputy, and his son-in-law, Derek Lowry, who works for the City of Venice Fire Department. Derek’s family is from Pennsylvania, so he uses a 30-year old Pennsylvania recipe for pulled pork. “I also have a secret recipe for the injections I use to add moisture to the meat,” Derek confided. “It’s got garlic and paprika, but that’s all I’ll say!”

In the competitive circuit, sauces can also be experimental, and novelty is welcomed. Lindsey Toole is a serious local barbecuer who, though he’s out of it now, successfully competed for several years as Tex-O-Lina Barbecue. “I’m from South Carolina originally, and my wife’s from Dallas,” Lindsey told me. “The two styles are really complementary, and we created a great recipe that combined the mustard-based sauces from my neck of the woods with the spicy flavors from hers.”

When it comes to sauce and seasonings, these guys all say the same thing: play around, get personal and go with what you like. Nor should you assume that precludes using store-bought ingredients. Derek Lowry relies heavily on Old Bay Seasoning for his rubs; it’s delicious as-is. As for sauces, “a lot of them are really tasty, and you can always add to them and tweak them to make them more your own,” said Bryan Corrigan.

As a few final words of wisdom, I’ll throw out what I call the three P’s of barbecue—preparation, patience and practice. “Preparation is key,” Lindsey counseled me. “You’ve got to start the night before. It allows the meat to really soak in the flavors of your rub or marinade, which makes for a much richer result. It’s also important to trim the fat, since leaving it on can ruin your presentation. I cut it off, then lay it across the meat as it’s smoking; it locks the moisture in and imparts its rich flavor, but doesn’t affect texture.”

Patience is a (BBQ) Virtue

Next is patience. Good barbecue takes a really long time. When Derek makes his pork, for example, it takes a full twelve hours. What’s more, four hours into the process, he carefully injects a marinade into each piece of meat, after which he carefully wraps it to finish smoking—and when you’re preparing five hundred pounds of pork butts, that’s a considerable undertaking. “Try to enjoy it,” he said, “and be sure not to let the meat dry out. Spraying it with vinegar and water makes it taste great and locks in the moisture.”

Finally, there’s practice; if it doesn’t make a perfect result, it definitely makes a better one. On any given weekend, Bryan and Tiernan Corrigan are outside trying out new recipes or perfecting old ones. “Experiment with different recipes and cuts of meat until you find one that really works for you,” they agree. “Then do it again, and again, and again until you feel confident that you can faithfully replicate it.”

When April rolls around, be sure to head to the Suncoast BBQ Bash, where you can sample the Tiernans’ signature Brunswick stew, Derek’s pulled pork, and David’s award-winning ribs—and get to know these great guys better. They’ve all got quite a lot in common: they learned to love barbecue from their dads, and grew up around barbecue at family cookouts. As adults, they started out as hobbyists, trying out new recipes on the weekends and foisting them off on anyone who was around; and when their friends and neighbors liked what they tasted, they decided to enter local competitions. To offset the costs of competing, most of them built their own smokers by hand, which occupy trailers as long as 24 feet.

They do have their secrets, of course. For the most part, though, the heart of barbecue isn’t so much a secret as it is an art—a culinary judgment, an intimate familiarity with the entire process, that simply has to be developed over time. Barbecue lovers should find that inspiring rather than intimidating. While all the teams agreed that practice was essential, they also all loved doing it. The long weekends spent tending the pit, waking up before dawn, traveling to new places, and making new friends are almost akin to a rite of passage—which is why, after all, barbecue remains such a beloved part of our heritage.

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