HARRISONBURG, Va. — In one of my several fantasy worlds, I own a barbecue restaurant. (My fantasy worlds are varied. In another, I exist outside of space and time and traverse the universe as a omnipotent being of light, wooing babes with feats of cosmic puissance.)
I started messing with barbecue when I was in college. It started as grilling chicken basted with a store-bought bottle sauce on a mini grill set up on the porch of an ex-girlfriend’s college tenement. Eventually, I progressed to pork shoulders on a kettle grill and making my own sauces. Eight-ish years later, I’m not bad at it. I even catered my grandfather’s 80th birthday party.
In Harrisonburg, if I want barbecue, I make it myself. (At the moment, my apartment has zoned me out of a making actual barbecue — open fire is forbidden — so I just do it in a crockpot.) I do my own ‘cue because Harrisonburg barbecue makes me sad. It’s pre-sauced and pre-sauced hard. And there is apparently no option to un-sauce. (I know. I’ve asked.) It doesn’t make sense.
It can take days to make barbecue. I typically soak my shoulders in a bucket of a lime juice/honey/garlic/rosemary mixture the night before. See:
A lot of people do rubs involving their entire spice cabinet. I go minimalist. Kosher salt and black pepper: That’s it. The lime juice/honey/garlic/rosemary marinade gives flavor, as does the smoke (I lean cherry wood but have come back to hickory recently). Then, the shoulder has to cook for hours — like eight to 12, depending on the temperature of the smoker/grill/crockpot/oven.
There is a lot of time and work involved to make barbecue, all of it to subtly and deftly cull flavor from a pig chunk. Why submerge it in virulent sauce at the very, very end? A sauce can dominate every flavor massaged from that pig chunk. The rub, the brine, the smoke, the bark (the caramelized crust of smokey, sweet meat love that forms a casing around the ‘cue) — it’s all suppressed.
Deep-saucing is counterintuitive — and arguably blasphemous — to the barbecue process.
I sauce my barbecue, but sparingly. The sauce, ketchup-based, is heavy on lime juice, honey and garlic to complement the bucket marinade. The pork still tastes of pork. Sometimes I even eat my pork naked.
Also, here is some crockpot barbecue with macaroni and cheese (all you need is two cheeses, butter, flour, whole milk and bread crumbs) and carrots, which were cooked down in butter, fresh ginger and water.
Finally, an endorsement: Alamo BBQ in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond. Sauce yourself and get the jalapeno mac and cheese.