The Food Network and other outlets churn out insufferable amounts of coverage devoted to barbecue in Texas, North Carolina, and Kansas City. With good reason, admittedly. Like anything, there are places where people simply do things right. And those locales should be celebrated and honored.
But by falling back on these old faithful locations time and time again (I mean, do we really need another peek at the Salt Lick in Austin, no matter how great the place is?), we miss the opportunity to explore lesser-known, but equally vibrant cultures of cooking.
For me, that oversight was rectified this past weekend when I was finally able to do a bit of exploring of my old stomping grounds, using Wes Berry’s excellent The Kentucky Barbecue Book. The end result was 4 barbecue joints in less than 48 hours and a great excuse to get off the highway and explore something more unique than just the fast food dumps that litter the exits.
An Associate Professor at Western Kentucky University, Berry wanted to document the barbecue customs and, more importantly, the people who dedicate their lives to it, from his home state. Along the way, he uncovered highly unique and diverse ways of treating barbecue that varied from, literally, county to county. What he calls “micro-regional” cuisine changes from Hopkinsville to Madisonville. And while the big time TV shows and annual New York Times roundups stick with only the most prominent representations of the genre, Berry goes deeper to show how two towns, just separated by a few miles, might go about things completely differently.
Imagine that we’re looking at some pizza show on the Travel Channel. They say, “Chicago is known for deep dish pies,” and then they move on to discussing the thin stuff from the Big Apple. That’s about it.
If Berry were in charge of this production, he’d say, “Chicago is known for deep dish pies. And if you’re on Michigan Avenue, that means a tomato sauce, but a quick cab ride over to Oak Park, then it’s going to be a white sauce. Five miles down into Cicero, you’re going to have spinach on there…” And so forth. This is deeply specific food writing. Just look at Berry’s treatment of mutton.
“This is why I’m fond of mutton, as smoky, tender mutton marries well with the tangy black dip sauces you’ll find at the four Owensboro barbecue places and at western Kentucky Catholic church picnics,” Berry writes. “There’s nothing else like this flavor in the barbecue kingdom, and it’s rare to find outside a few counties in western Kentucky… Mutton is usually basted while smoking over hickory coals and served with a savory Worchestershire sauce-based dip, a think, black potion that also contains vinegar and spices like black pepper and allspice.”
As specific as The Kentucky Barbecue Book is, what prevents it from descending into ultra-niche market territory is Berry’s ability to recount stories about the food and the pit masters encountered along his travels. In many cases, Berry even managed to finagle some recipes out of these experts so you can follow along in your home kitchen. So even if you’re not planning a visit to the Bluegrass State anytime soon, the book is still well-worth a read. Part travelogue, part cookbook, part cultural exploration, Wes Berry’s The Kentucky Barbecue Book is like a great meal: it combines just the right amount of spices, along some sweet and a good smoke.