There are plenty of New Year’s resolutions floating around this January, but we have only one: to learn how to barbecue the American way.
In Australia, the word barbecue conjures up images (and flavour memories) of fatty, blackened sausages squashed between tacky slices of white bread and doused in Kraft tomato sauce. Not so appealing when you think of it like that, is it?
But for those partial to a sausage in bread, a visit one of the many barbecue houses in the United States may shock you. In the land of the free, this is more than a just summer tradition; it is an expression of national identity. Picture piles of smoky, soft, slow-cooked meat, enhanced with spicy rubs and tangy sauces. Convinced yet?
According to Bob Hart, writer and barbecue master, Australia’s idea of barbecue is not only incorrect, it is sacrilege. “Australians have this strange idea that we’re a barbecue nation, but most of them wouldn’t know barbecue if it bit them on the arse,” he quips. “What happens in most Australian backyards isn’t barbecue, it’s cremation.”
It was when Hart moved to the States in 1980 that he discovered that the American tradition of barbecue – from Virginia to Texas – was vastly different to that of Australia’s. “I saw all of these black round things in people’s backyards and thought I’d better get one. They were Weber kettles and I realised there was a bit more to barbecue than I’d imagined,” he recalls.
In his recently published cookbook, Heat & Smoke: Mastering the Dark Art of Real Barbecue, Hart explains: “Barbecue is the enlightened application of heat, smoke, spices and ingenuity to protein, fruit and vegetables… Out of doors.”
And it is this winning combination that has kept the (admittedly rather large) bellies of Americans full and aflame with passion for their meat. “Barbecue is a really fascinating cooking method and we use the word but we don’t know anything about it,” says Hart, who is intent on educating people in this dark art.
As well as explaining the basic principle behind barbecue – cooking with heat and smoke – and sharing a generous selection of recipes in his book, Hart also holds five-hour barbecue masterclasses in his backyard. Here he waxes lyrical about the philosophy behind barbecue cooking and proceeds to teach his students how to smoke spare ribs, barbecue rib eye steak, grill mussels and char asparagus, among other things, including which barbecue to buy and how to maintain it and whether to smoke your meat using hickory chips or the distinctly southern mesquite wood.
According to Hart, imparting this knowledge is necessary. He believes Australia is at least three to four decades behind America when it comes to barbecue. But he is also lifting the veil on this sacred tradition that Americans, particularly in the South and Midwest, hold very dear.
“There is a mystique surrounding barbecue and that’s why I called the book what I did. And the great thing about pit bosses [American barbecue cooks] is that they’re like fisherman – they lie to you. So, if you find the best ribs you’ve ever tasted, chances are they’ll never tell you how they did it. But you can get a little information from each one,” says Hart.
And this is just what he has done. The self-confessed “food groupie” has extracted many a grill mystery from pit bosses across America, most of whom, says Hart, are barking mad.
Some of the methods he shares in his book and classes include the basics of rubs and barbecue sauces – two extremely important elements of barbecue, and the secret of the Texas Crutch. Trust us, you can’t cook ribs without it.
“The book is a bit like the magician revealing all of his tricks, but we’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” says Hart.
Australia, a new era of barbecue awaits.