Welcome to the Barbecue Nation
Since our humble backyard grilling beginnings in the 1950s with the advent of the brazier grill, we as a nation have explored every conceivable way that we can cook with fire.
We lug our grills to stadium parking lots to soothe our hunger pains before the best team-our team-takes the field. In the South, a politician would have a tough time getting elected without hosting a barbecue feed or two. The sense of neighborhood is heightened with a grilling get-together. The thrill of cooking the day's catch beside a mountain stream or just grilling some hot dogs at a campsite gives us great pleasure. Forty years ago, most of us would pack away our little 16-inch aluminum-foil-lined round grills on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Not anymore. And grilling is no longer a once-a-week phenomenon but rather a godsend, cooking up fast, delicious meals all week long.
Like so many things that make our country great, the influx of cultures from around the globe has had a profound influence on how and what we cook in our backyards. The beginnings of true barbecue appear to have come over from Africa with the slaves, then was adopted and taken in a variety of directions by America's other ethnic populations. As we expanded west, Mexican flavors and methods were adopted. Native Americans were already versed in smoking fish, long before the first bagel arrived on these shores. The Germans brought their own special methods as they settled into the Midwest and eventually Texas, heavily influencing the foodways of the region. The Cuban migration has changed the way South Florida cooks, and the Jamaicans have gifted us with their fiery jerked pork and chicken. The contributions of America's immigrants to our grill cooking have been deliciously innovative and continue to occur as new populations reach our shores.
I travel a lot to teach cooking classes and to do research for my cookbooks. Everywhere I go, someone is always telling me about a friend or relative who is a great cook. E-mails in response to my newspaper columns have added to the culinary wealth, and then I got to thinking about the friends I've had for years whose invitation to a meal is something special. So when I decided I wanted to do a grilling book because of my great love for cooking outdoors, I thought, why not bring all these recipes together, why not a national community cookbook of sorts for grilling and barbecue?
The search for these recipes has been a joy and a frustration. In the beginnings of my travels, I seemed to be the harbinger of bad weather. Schedule a meal and interview with me and inevitably a hurricane would get there first. Katrina sadly chased me from the Gulf Coast and kept me from untold stories and recipes. Many of the people I had wanted to meet and eat with are still displaced; some I have yet to find and worry for their well-being. Rita slowed me down in Texas, and I was driven from Florida on four different occasions by hurricanes and tropical storms. A weekend of grilling was washed out in New York City with eight inches of rain over two days.
But as much as the bad weather dogged me, the 20 pounds I've gained during the writing of this book attest to the fact that good food was abundant and waiting to be found. I've had dinner with the mayor and fire chief of Byhalia, Mississippi, a sign maker in Houston, an oyster shucker in New Orleans, a country ham man in East Tennessee, a fish broker in Northern California, and many more generous people who have opened their homes and pantries and fired up a grill to share their best with me and now you. But what has elevated this adventure beyond my imagination is the number of people all over this country that I can now call friends. There is something about an outdoor fire that binds us and gives us pleasure. I was actually kind of sad when it came time to compile the recipes because I wanted to keep searching and expanding this new circle of friends.
For the most part, the folks I have met on this journey are not professional barbecue or grill people. Most have regular jobs that don't involve food. There are some food writers and a few chefs hanging around in these pages, but they cook out for the same reason you do-to have fun and enjoy the unique flavor that an outdoor flame imparts to food. I have also included recipes of my own that family and friends have embraced and adopted as their own.
Put these to recipes work. They are tried and true, backyard tested, and damn good. And you don't need a thousand-dollar grill to reproduce them. You do need one with a lid, though. All have been tested over gas and charcoal, and they have performed equally well.
I hope that this book becomes one of the most stained and splattered books at your house, I also anticipate that you will use these recipes as springboards to your own fabulous creations, your own house specialities. When it comes time to write the next chapter in Barbecue Nation, I hope that your backyard is the next place I'll be headed for great grilling.