Welcome to Dreamland

If you were looking forward to your dose of bibliographic nerdery and/or prophecies of doom, I apologise. We have a change of pace this week. (But don't worry, there's still a moral to the story.) 

Last week saw the publication of The Stars Now Unclaimed, the debut novel from Drew Williams. Drew is an amazing writer. I chose the ‘strikingly entertaining’ Starsas one of my mid-year ‘best of’ picks, and not just for the zombie space raptors. Rather than force him to answer yet another round of questions about his influences, I figured we’d talk about something important instead.

You seem a bit of a foodie, in a normal-human-being-who-likes-normal-food kind of way. So let's talk about the most important food of all: BBQ. What does the word mean to you?

Honestly, I’m not. I wouldn’t know what to do with kale if you handed me a bag of it with written instructions and a detailed list of ‘how kale reacts to different cooking methods’ - but growing up in the Southeastern US, BBQ is just part of the cultural atmosphere: I imagine it’s like growing up out west and not having a definitive opinion on the great ‘green vs red’ chili debate, or growing up in the UK and not being able to hold forth about... I don’t know, bangers and mash? (I’ll be honest: British food as a concept confuses and frightens me.)

On those same lines, what I think of when I think of BBQ is as much a cultural moment as much as a single dish (though for the record: white meat chicken, still on the bone, the perfect delivery for the sauce, which is the real point of BBQ).

My uncle built his own house, and since he bought property way out in the boonies to do so (at least, it was the boonies back then), he had more land than he could afford to build on. What was the very first thing he built after the house itself was done? A huge brick smoker, big enough that you could have fed a regiment in one go. (To be fair, there were a lot of us, and with six boys amongst the seven cousins and five amongst my uncle’s generation, we could EAT.)

So what I think when I think of BBQ is nothing less than halcyon, golden moments from my childhood: my cousins and brother and I running around like maniacs in the woods on his property (probably re-enacting Star Wars, or whatever dumb R-rated 80s action movie one of our uncles had snuck us the prior night), and the smell of the smoke in the air, almost better than the taste itself - until we all got called back to the smoker, the whole family with paper plates and solo cups of lemonade, and then hell no, the smell wasn’t the best part!

Were those moments as perfect as I remember? Almost certainly not: with seven kids, at least a couple of us were fighting, at least a handful of my uncles were probably embarrassingly drunk, and with my family, a day like that was as liable to end with a trip to the emergency room as anything else - I once got shot in the head with an arrow! - but those aren’t the parts I remember, you know? In memory, the sunlight’s always perfect, the sweat doesn’t stink and the blood doesn’t hurt, and every piece of BBQ that came out of that smoker was done to perfection.

I find it reassuring you mentioned the smoker and the sauce. In the UK, ‘BBQ’ is synonymous with 'grilling'. Actual, real BBQ involves the smoke and the sauce. Anything less is just heating meat on a fire. Which isn't bad, of course - but a very distant second.

You really need to commit to BBQ and the time required for proper 'low and slow' cooking. How often can those moments occur? Do you have one or two perfect BBQ memories, or did your family carve out a regular thing?

(Also, what did you do to that chicken?)

Yeah, grilling definitely has its place - there’s nothing like a steak done just right on the grill - it’s just, pretty adamantly not actually BBQ. That’s like someone handing you a coffeeshop iced coffee and saying ‘it’s a milkshake!’ Well, no; it’s not. It’s perfectly tasty - and involves some of the same ingredients and processes - but it’s not the same thing.

In my head they were every weekend, all summer long! In actuality, probably just the big holidays when the weather was nice enough, (Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, ‘the one with all the fireworks I’m not going to mention in deference to your British readers’ Day), so a handful of times a year.

The chicken was definitely brined (looking back on it, I'm pretty sure my uncle used washed-out wax sealant jugs to do the brining; god, it's a wonder we're not dead): relatively simple brining, just salt and rosemary would be my guess, and not for very long, or else it would just fall apart (which definitely happened, at least once). Then smoked whole over pecan chips (though I seem to recall consistent argument, every single time, over whether it should be started at higher temperatures and then lowered - in order to get the skin crispy - or smoked at roughly the same level of heat the whole way through. Seriously: every time, like clockwork: 'that's too much heat!' 'No it's not, it'll get crispy that way!' 'You like it crispy; nobody else-' and on, and on, ad infinitum, until long past the point where it actually mattered).

Sauce wasn't applied until pretty late in the process, and we weren't nearly fancy enough to make our own: Dreamland, bought in big plastic jugs at the Piggly Wiggly, was our sauce of choice. Dreamland's an Alabama institution: for years, they literally served nothing but barbecue and sliced wonder bread; there were op-eds in the newspapers about 'the end of an era' when they started serving coleslaw. I don't think they even did chicken back then: just ribs and pork.

I tend to prefer dark meat in general, especially in turkey, but in barbecue, I like the white meat just because what I primarily want to taste is that sweet tang of the sauce with the chicken as structural support more than anything else; when I was a vegetarian in my twenties, I used to buy a jar of barbecue sauce and sliced white bread (memories of Dreamland again) every once in a while, just so I could get my fix. (Also because that was all I could afford.) Even then, veggieburgers had their place, but even grilled, they're definitely not barbecue.

Clearly influenced by this conversation, I'm working away on some baby back ribs. I've prepped them, and they're currently getting their marinade on. The best part is: we've got a big jug of Dreamland that you sent us. I will report back in 8 hours tenderising, 3 hours cooking, and 3 minutes eating.

I was raised on Kansas City BBQ, which emphasises the art of the spare rib. Part of the reason that KC is convinced we're the best at BBQ is that spare ribs are the trickiest thing to cook. They're immensely high risk / high reward. So easy to get wrong, and so perfect when they're right.

(Caveat, I personally have only tried to cook spare ribs once, and they were inedible.)

Setting aside Kansas City's (obviously correct) claim, what makes Alabama BBQ special?

The answer to that one's simple: because we're right, damn it all! Like most things Southern, Alabama lies (both geographically and culturally) at the exact center of the Deep South; the state ain't called 'the Heart of Dixie' for nothing (and that remains true even when what we're representative of is, well, horrible). Barbecue is a Southern tradition; the further you get from the Deep South, the more weird and not-quite-BBQ variations start to take root. (Like in Texas. Texas isn't even the South, not really... they're just 'Texas'.)  

Barbecue is defined first and foremost by the sauce (again, setting aside people who refer to grilling as 'BBQ', since we've already established that they're clearly wrong, and also perhaps guilty of some sort of obscure moral failure): a thick, tomato based tangy slather is barbecue sauce. Your levels of sweetness, or spiciness, even of vinegar...iness?... might differ from sauce to sauce, but that basic taste remains the same. I don't care what meat you use that sauce on - it's entirely permissible to barbecue goat, so long as it's smoked and covered in BBQ sauce - but it needs to taste like BBQ, and it's the sauce that makes that so.

Dry rub ain't barbecue. Purely vinegar-based sauce ain't barbecue. Get out of here with your mustard-based sauces. Even white sauce barbecue (mayonnaise based, typically slathered on chicken) - which, I believe, was invented in Alabama - is more along the lines of an interesting variation on BBQ rather than the platonic ideal, sort of like a pesto pizza vs a traditional tomato-sauce based pie, or white chicken chili vs regular chili: white sauce BBQ is still BBQ, and it's tasty as all get-out, but it's not what you think of when you think of BBQ.

Regional variances are like Southern accents: for the most part, they're all southern, and there's a single starting point before where they all begin to diverge... until you run into something like dry-rub, or those people from that one tiny portion of the Carolinas who use 'ya'll' as singular.

Note to Yankee writers: do not do this. Do not ever do this. 'Ya'll' is plural: fill in 'you guys' in your head the same way you'd fill in, say, 'do not' for 'don't', and make sure the meaning is the same. If it is, you're okay to use ya'll. Nothing drives a Southerner crazier than a Yankee writer using 'ya'll' as a singular - 'ya'll hand me that lemonade!' - except maybe a Yankee saying 'let's barbecue - I'll fire up the grill!'

Get: Families
To: Enjoy cooking as an opportunity, not a chore
By: Showing the memories and heritage around it

Two footnotes:

  1. The Stars Now Unclaimed is a joyous, space opera romp. It is fast and fun and cinematic, the perfect balance of explodey silliness and compelling characters. Exactly the sort of book you would give to, say, gamers or movie-watchers, to get them into reading. It is fun, casually progressive, and exactly what you need on a rainy weekend day. Hint.

  2. My ribs turned out ok! (I know you were worried.) The initial rub was a little too salty, but nothing a third fourth drenching in Dreamland couldn’t cure. The recipe I used was very simple, but left out smoke. I used hickory, and topped up the chips every time I checked on them.