Summer Barbecue Reading List
The Complete Barbecue Library in Two Volumes
As Part 2 of our series on barbecue, we look at two books worth reading as you get ready for the holiday.
There are many books on the subject but there are two that will give you a lifetime’s worth of recipes and information.
The first is Steven Raichlen’s “BBQ USA.” The introductory section on barbecue history is the most thorough I’ve read on the subject. The author traces the development of the first recorded mention of this cooking style in the writings of Spanish explorer Oviedo all the way through to shifts in taste brought about by the Food Network.
“BBQ USA” details the origins of “barbacoa” from when the Taino Indians introduced it to Europeans in the 16th century. Raichlen explains how German and Czech immigration in the early 19th century led to the first barbecue restaurants and how African-Americans brought the method to northern cities following emancipation. If you want to understand why some sauces are vinegar-, mustard- or ketchup-based, why some regions favor pork versus beef, or why we have Henry Ford to thank for home grilling, the author explains all that and more in the first 30 pages of this encyclopedic volume.
To understand barbecue science, “Meathead,” by Meathead Goldwyn, is an essential book. Don’t judge it by the title or the author’s name. He didn’t work alone. It’s co-authored by Greg Blonder, who holds a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and is a professor at Boston University. Goldwyn also credits his microbiologist wife for inspiration and assistance.
“Meathead” is the barbecue world’s answer to the TV show “MythBusters,” and Goldwyn is critical of many commonplace assumptions. I learned a number of useful techniques from Goldwyn, including his trick of salting brisket days in advance and then adding a salt-free seasoning rub just before roasting. But it’s the contrarian myth-busting that makes his book so much fun. Do you think that grill marks are the sign of a good steak? That all meat needs to be rested before serving? Think searing meat seals in juices? The Louis Pasteur of Pork has some words for you.
The book includes a chapter on heat science, as well as recipes and information on cooking methods using a range of devices: homemade barrel smokers, customized Weber kettles and kamado-style grills. The book is comprehensive and covers areas you aren’t likely to hear about elsewhere until it’s too late, such as how to prevent the rare but serious problem of flashback.
These two books constitute an exhaustive education in the history and science of barbecue. As with any food tradition, there’s history yet to be written, and food science is still in its infancy. Early sauces used little or no salt and sugar, and relied upon herbs and chilies for flavor. Given recent bad press about sugar, there’s no reason we can’t draw inspiration from ancient recipes. For the Merrimack Valley to be included in future histories of barbecue, we’ll have to look beyond sugary sauces and not settle for anything but the real deal — food prepared slowly, with patience and skill.
This isn’t even to mention the most important aspect of barbecue, the part that goes beyond technique. Barbecue is food that is meant to be shared. It is food for celebrations and it connects us with our family and friends as well as our culinary traditions.