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BBQ: How to Do Culinary Research

Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Every once in a while, people -- especially those who are new to food writing and food studies -- have asked about how those of us who have been writing for some time research our topics. One way to do it is to actually read about the subject, which usually means a trip to the library. A much easier method is simply to ask another expert. This is known as an "author's query." One must first, of course, find a place where such people waste their time exchange ideas -- but that's exactly the sort of knowledge that distinguishes experts from amateurs.

To give you an idea of the sort of high-minded discussions that can result from such author's queries, I'm including a typical scholarly exchange.

Subject: Barbecue Recipe for Molly O'Neill

Hi Gary,
Thank you for your kind invitation on the ASFS Listserv to submit potential recipes for Molly O'Neill. Below is a family recipe handed down -- and improved upon -- for generations. It was originally published in Margie Lapanja's Food Men Love (2001), but the editors greatly revised the original recipe, removing ingredients, equipment, etc. I don't know why they did this. It was not done with my consent. Anyway, I thought Molly would want to consider the original recipe for her collection. I've added a few "Notes" based on relevant research that might be of interest to her readers. I want to make sure I have accurately represented the research of those noted in the notes, so I've copied this message to them.
Looking forward to your response,
Andy Smith

Modern Barbecuing [Note 1]


Shotgun and shells filled with rock salt
Oak barrels (one for six servings) or deep wheel barrels (one for four servings)
Pickup truck
A pickup truck filled with mesquite and/or oak
Large sharp butcher knife
5000 dried corncobs and maize leaves
Electric cattle prodder
Large cauldron
Fire extinguisher

Ingredients per barrel:

6 chunks of beef or pork, approximately 10 pounds apiece
2 lbs garlic cloves
2 lbs. large onions
2 lbs. rock salt
2 lbs. jalapeno peppers
10 or more gallons of Red Mountain wine -- enough to fill the barrel after other ingredients have been added

Optional ingredients:

Small onions

Butchering your own cow or pig is highly recommended, but if you have to purchase meat, the larger and cheaper the pieces the better. Don't worry about hoofs, bones, skin, hide, tail, etc. -- these will just add flavor and will fall off during the barbecuing process. In any case, meat should be butchered or acquired at least twenty-four hours before you plan to start your barbecue. If not already cut into pieces, use your butchers knife to cut the meat down into ten pound chunks that will fit into your oak barrel; if barrels are unavailable, wheel barrels will work -- but please wash out the wheel barrel with water before using-- and remember that a deep wheel barrel will only hold about 60 percent of what a regular barrel will hold, so you need to adjust the amount of ingredients accordingly.

Load your shotgun [Note 2] with shells in which the buckshot has been removed and rock salt has been loaded. Some well known aficionados have also placed whole cloves of garlic or small onions in the shells, and this is perfectly acceptable. A couple blasts on each side is fine, but larger pieces may require a little more.

Next, with your sledge-hammer smash large onions, garlic and peppers and place them into the barrel. [Note 3] Use your pitchfork to puncture the meat several times and place ten-pound chunks into the barrel. Salt to taste. Add enough Red Mountain (or some other fine wine) so that none of the meat is exposed to air. Some cover the barrels; others don't. In general it depends on the quantity and type of flies and other insects in the neighborhood. Many insects add flavor; others just get drunk -- so use your common sense. [Note 4] In any case, marinate at least 24 hours.

While the meat is marinating, dig a pit five feet square with your backhoe. Twelve hours before you plan to eat, place into the hole dried mesquite or oak along with trash -- preferably collected from your own rancho. Local trash really adds that special "terroir" flavor and you can burn up litter that would be illegal otherwise. Start the fire with electric cattle prodder -- this really adds a feeling that you're in the Old West -- but do not use lighter fluid, which will give the meat a funny taste. When the logs have turned to hot coals, toss in about half of your corncobs and cover with a foot of dirt.

Remove the meat from marinade -- pitchforks are fine to remove the ten-pound chunks -- and place the meat in non-flammable gunny sacks, which should be arranged strategically about the pit. Cover the sacks with the remaining corncobs -- make sure all of your meat is covered with at least a foot of corncobs, then cover the corncobs with dirt.

While the meat is cooking, remove the marinade from the barrels, and pour in cauldron, which should be placed over the barbecue pit on a small iron pedestal. The marinade should simmer slowly while the meat is cooking below ground. This cooked marinade will not be used on the meat -- at least professional barbecuers don't use it -- it just looks good to have something visual while you're barbecuing so people don't think you're crazy sitting around a pit drinking beer.
Cook for about 10 hours. Timing depends on quantity and thickness of meat. Good barbecuers can determine readiness by the aroma coming from the barbecue pit. Unfortunately, experiments have proven that many barbecuers do drink while plying their trade and drink may destroy their sense of smell. So a rough way of calculating cooking time is to keep track of the beer consumed. Professional barbecuers, for instance, average consume 1/4 a keg per hour, so after 2 1/2 kegs after have been consumed per person, the meat is likely ready. For non-professionals, beer consumption is slightly higher, so calculate accordingly. [Note 5].
Serves 6.

Warnings: This method is not recommended for city barbecues. Use the fire extinguisher only in case you've built the fire too near a structure that has caught fire. Never ever use the extinguisher on the barbecue fire regardless of what else is burning-- it will destroy the taste of the meat.


1. Since this was originally published, several studies have suggested that this method -- slightly revised -- may go back centuries. For instance, Ken Albala's wonderful book, Quasi- Barbecuing during the Proto-Renaissance in Slovakia (forthcoming) has proven that similar techniques were in use at least five hundred years ago. Perhaps other researchers will locate earlier references.

2. Cara De Silva noted recently on the ASFS Listserv that the late Madeline Cosman and the National Rifle Association recommend using an automatic weapon rather than a shotgun, but this is excessive by any standard. I think they’re just trying to out-macho the professional barbecuers and gain members for the NRA.

3. Gary Allen’s recent book, Ancient Herbs from the Aztecs for Use in Barbecuing during the Summer Months (2006), has recommended the use of many more herbs in the marinade. I disagree, and so do most professional barbecuers. Herbs destroy the flavor of the cheap wine in the marinade, and therefore should be sparsely used.

4. See Bruce Kraig, “A Treatise on Insects, Barbecuing and Hot Dog Consumption in Chicago in the Early 20th Century,” PhD Dissertation, 1985. Available on Dissertation Abstracts.

5. For more information about this method, see Andrew F. Smith, “Experimental Studies in Beer Consumption while Barbecuing in New York City during the Fall of 1991” Experimental and Quantitative Barbecuing 6 (Fall 1996): 23. It is interesting to note that Cathy Kaufman’s recent study on beer consumption in ancient Babylonia suggests slightly higher levels of ale while cooking meat. Of course, the ale’s alcoholic content in Babylonia has yet to be conclusively determined, which would of course make a difference. If this can be reconciled, I’d like to suggest that this be called “The First Law of Barbecuing.”
I do have other laws, but they'll have to await my next book, which I have yet to start writing but which I should complete in the next month or so.

My reply:

Thanks, Andy for the kind offer of your family's recipe.

I must quibble, however, with your dismissal of the herbs I recommended in my recent book. Had you paid careful attention to the text, you would have noticed that the Aztecs always included large quantities of tongues (wrapped securely in -- otherwise wasted -- cheeks) in their BBQ barrels. Actually, they used barrel cactuses -- which, in pre-Columbian times, were much larger than those found today. This provided a slight tequila-like flavor to the marinating meat, hence the appropriate use of herbs.

Also, if you had EVER read a history book, you would know that red wine was not available to the Aztecs. They had to make do with wine coolers until the Spanish arrived.

One final note, re: the herbs recommended in Ancient Herbs from the Aztecs for Use in Barbecuing during the Summer Months: Epazote was not, of course, added to reduce flatulence -- the Aztecs LOVED flatulence.

ANOTHER final note: to the best of my knowledge, Molly never made use of this scholarly exchange.
(proving, yet again, the truth of the ancient maxim: de gustibus non disputandem est)


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