I may just be the world's biggest barbecue snob.
I'll eat your smoked pork shoulder or your crockpot pulled pork or the ribs in store-bought barbecue sauce that you think are so legendary. Every once in a while, I'll order a plate of barbecue just to see if someone can do it right. I'll eat them all and I may even enjoy some of it. To me, though? That's not barbecue. That's as different from barbecue as hamburgers are from salmon filets. It might still taste good, and I'll still congratulate you for slaving over your hot grill, but inside, I'll be reminiscing about real barbecue and feeling sorry that you've missed out on it.
See? I told you that I was a barbecue snob.
I'm from Western Kentucky. Owensboro, specifically, which calls itself the barbecue capital of the world. I can accept that. The region is renowned for its International Barbecue Festival and the famous Moonlite Barbecue restaurant. Here's a barbecue snob inside tip - that's not real barbecue either. Oh, it's good food. I won't deny that. Eating at Moonlite is an experience not to be missed when in Owensboro. It is a buffet of southern culinary delight of epic proportions. The pies alone are worth the trip. So, yes. Go eat there. Enjoy!
If you ever find yourself in Owensboro during the summer, though, try your hardest to find a local Catholic parish's annual picnic. This is where the real barbecue is.
When I was a child, my grandparents lived on the church grounds of St. Augustine Catholic Church in Reed, Kentucky where my grandfather was the caretaker. Never heard of it? You aren't alone. A few years ago, the Transportation Cabinet re-routed about a two-mile portion of Highway 60 in Henderson County. Before that, you could tell you were in Reed because of the small green sign that told you so. I'm not even sure that they installed a new sign when the new road was built.
We celebrated the Fourth of July with the church's annual picnic. It was a key fundraiser for the parish and featured barbecue, burgoo, a Bingo stand, games like ring toss and cake walk and the best stand ever (if you asked my cousins and I) - the Toy Store stand. The toy store had grab bags for sale for $1. We'd hit up each of our grandparents, aunts and uncles for contributions to feed our grab bag addictions. As a kid, the toy store definitely trumped the food.
As an adult, knowing that the picnic no longer is an annual occurrence (dwindling volunteer efforts, increased gaming and food regulations caused the event to end), I find myself reminiscing more and more about the food.
During the week leading up to the picnic, the church grounds were a bustle of activity. The men busied themselves cleaning out the barbecue pits - long, concrete block-laid structures that would be filled with wood for the barbecue fire and covered with wire mesh and laid with chicken, pork and mutton. The men would also be cleaning out and seasoning the giant burgoo kettles (imagine a HUGE witches cauldron). The women of the parish would be in the basement of the old school house, peeling, slicing and dicing all of the burgoo's vegetable ingredients. They would fill huge washtubs with cabbage, corn, tomatoes, and onions - all while socializing and constantly telling the kids to get out from under their feet and go outside to play.
(A quick note about burgoo. The word is just about like "Louisville" with all of its various pronunciations. A lot of Central Kentucky folks pronounce it with a sound at the end that makes it rhyme with "bamboo." In my family, it's got a long "u" sound. I contend that we're right simply because I like to be right. Also? It's Louh - vul. Two syllables.)
Back to the food. Our variety of Western Kentucky barbecue centers mainly around barbecue chicken. Chicken halves and quarters are laid flat on the barbecue pits and then a barbecue dip (featuring lots of oil, vinegar, black pepper, lemons, and pickling spice) is applied with a mop at regular intervals. You eat it with your hands and it's very messy but very tasty. I'm a weirdo who has issues with eating meat with the bones still in it, so barbecue chicken was never my favorite.
Mutton was always where it was for me. Lots of WKy barbecue restaurants feature chopped mutton sandwiches, but I prefer it just coarsely diced. Big hunks of meat that have been boiled, then barbecued with dip. It is fan-freaking-tastic and definitely in my top three favorite foods.
Burgoo is a family favorite, but I always found it off-putting to eat boiling hot soup in the heat of summer. I loved watching the men work the burgoo kettles, though. You want to talk about hot? Try nine enormous kettles of boiling stew with wood fires below. Each kettle had to be constantly stirred. The men had long paddle-like stirrers that allowed them at least a few feet of distance from the heat of the kettles. The best thing was always to buy a few gallons of burgoo to put in the freezer. It's a perfect, hearty winter meal.
Now that the St. Augustine picnic no longer happens every July 4th, I've not had good picnic barbecue in quite a while. You can still find church picnics in the area. Each one has its own special method of cooking and its own special recipe. None of it quite replicates the barbecue and burgoo I remember from my youth.
However, my family regularly gets together to replicate the food on a smaller scale. My aunts are pros at making the barbecue dip ahead of time. My uncles perform a well-choreographed dance around the grills to mop, dip, flip the meat (the secret is having a good hose-man to put out the flare ups of fire). My uncles also bought a smaller burgoo kettle for special occasions. My dad constructed a paddle to stir it. Family events aren't complete without centering around barbecue. Family friends ask when our next party will be so they can come have some. Family weddings aren't complete without it as our main course.
Barbecue is a personal thing for a lot of people. Across the country, you'll find a different variety for every state or city you go to. I can understand that you think your particular favorite is the best. You probably think it's the best for the same reasons I think Western Kentucky Catholic Church barbecue is the best. In the South, barbecue is a constant in our lives. The tastes and smells can take us back to the lazy summers of our youth. We can remember just what Grandpa looked like as the King of the Grill long after an uncle or your dad has taken over those duties. Barbecue is a special tradition. In my family, it's nearly a sacred one.
If you're interested, check out this recipe for Crockpot Burgoo , submitted by my Aunt Jan to the St. Augustine Parish Centennial Cookbook.