Barbecue Tips from the Pit

The U.S.’s top pit masters share stories and barbecue best practices
Jonathan Meter Big Apple BBQ Block Party attracts barbecue fans who feast on barbecue creations made by the U.S.'s top pit masters.

For the last 10 years, the second weekend in June has meant one thing for New York City, the Big Apple BBQ Block Party. Some of the best pit masters from across the country convene at Madison Square Park to barbecue and offer New Yorkers an opportunity to taste the variety of flavors and styles of America’s most homegrown, authentic cuisine.

My family is from Argentina and I grew up on South American Asado-style barbecue. Asado is the way my dad and grandfather cooked and it’s all I knew about barbecue for most of my life. It was not until I went to my first barbecue festival five or six years ago when I moved to New York that I gained an appreciation for American-style barbecue. It was then when I began to understand the differences in flavors and styles.

I wanted to talk to some of the pit masters to learn about their specific styles of barbecue, who taught them how to cook, and whether their cooking is influenced by international styles of barbecue. I found that most of these renowned pit masters learned how to barbecue the same way I did - from their dads - and they take tremendous pride in maintaining the flavors and techniques that have been passed down through their families for many generations.

Chris Lilly (Big Bob Gibson BBQ, Decatur, Ala)

Pit master Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson BBQ from Decatur, Ala. is one of the most decorated pit masters in the country with 10 World Barbecue Championship titles. Decatur’s location between Memphis and the Carolinas makes Big Bob Gibson’s style of barbecue a unique combination of those two traditional styles.

Big Bob Gibson’s pulled pork is given its subtle smoky flavor from a dry rub and apple juice injection, followed by 12 to 15 hours of smoking over a combination of Kingsford charcoal and hickory wood chunks.

Lilly believes the tastiness of their pulled pork stands strong on its own, and he serves all his sauces on the side so that the customer can decide whether they want sauce and what type.
Lilly is well traveled and loves incorporating foreign flavors and cooking techniques into his recipes when he is catering parties or cooking at home. However in his 87-year-old family restaurant in Decatur, he leaves the recipes alone and lets the family tradition stand true and uncorrupted.
 

Ed Mitchell (The Pit, Raleigh, NC)

Ed Mitchell’s stand to try some Carolina style BBQ. Mitchell grew up on a farm in Wilson, NC where he learned his family’s 150-year-old method for cooking whole hog at an early age. Mitchell believes true, authentic barbecue requires cooking a whole animal.

Head-to-toe cooking and a vinegar-based sauce are two factors that really distinguish Carolina barbecue. Mitchell is a proponent of the hot and fast barbecue cooking technique, and he cooks his hogs at temperatures reaching up to 450°.

Mike Mills (17th Street Bar & Grill, Murphysburo, IL)

Pit master Mike Mills of 17th Street Bar & Grill prepares Memphis-style barbecue. Mills learned to barbecue from his dad. He assesses good barbecue based on the harmonious convergence of four factors which he refers to as a “rodeo in your mouth”: juicy pork, spicy rub, tangy sauce and the slight presence of smoke.

Mills is adamant that he does not like “sloppy barbecue,” which has too much sauce and loses the texture of the pork. He serves his ribs with sweet, tomato-based Memphis style sauce.

Contrary to my assumption that barbecue is an imprecise process, Mills said the entire process is, in fact, measured and precise. He pulled out a shaker full of his secret dry rub and told me it was enough for exactly 18 racks of ribs. If he doesn’t have enough to get all 18 racks, he has used too much rub, and if he has some left over, he didn’t use enough.

“We just make it look easy, “ said Mills.

Drew Robinson (Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, Birmingham, Ala.)

Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q
served up sausages with hot pimento cheese. Jim ‘N Nick’s strategy for making these sausages juicy, smoky and crispy is to smoke them first, then grill them to make sure the casing gets extra crispy.

Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q pit master Drew Robinson, like all the other pit masters I spoke with, also learned how to barbecue from his family. More internationally influenced than many pit masters, Drew described a trip to Uruguay that he took with his competition team, the Fatback Collective.

The group visited Chef Francis Mallmann, ate at his restaurant El Garzón and had the opportunity to cook with several of Mallmann’s cooks in Uruguay. He enjoyed tasting and learning about Asado style barbecue. Experiencing another culture’s way of cooking barbecue made Drew realize how all barbecue has the same starting point - a whole animal – and then different techniques to give the meat totally different textures and flavors.

The Fatback Collective used some of their newly learned techniques to cook a whole lamb over an open flame for the exotic category in the Memphis in May competition this year.

Gary Roark (Ubon’s Yazoo City, Miss.)

I had the opportunity to chat with Garry Roark and his daughter Leslie, the “Barbecue Princess.” Roark’s father, Ubon, passed down the secret recipe for their famous sauce that has been handed down for five generations.

Ubon’s sauce gained national acclaim in the mid 80’s when Garry started competing in the barbecue circuit and producing the sauce on a large scale. The recipe is made in southeastern Missouri so it has “a Memphis flare with a nod to Kansas City.”
 

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