June 11, 2008
“This is why there is pork.” My words after eating a morsel of pork freshly pulled from the bone of a pork butt (oddly the top of the shoulder) which had been smoking for 16 hours at 225 degrees Fahrenheit. It melted in my mouth, it made my knees weak and it lives in Decatur, Alabama, 935 miles from NYC, in the smokers of renowned pit master Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q.
Above you’ll see how the best pulled pork I’ve ever had was created, from smoker to cutting board to plate. Read on for a more in depth look at the process, The Salt Lick BBQ’s beef brisket (also the best I’ve ever had), plus serious sausage and whole smoked 120 pound hogs.
The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que – Driftwood, Texas
Instant condensation appeared on my Poland Spring Bottle as I walked through sweltering heat towards the Fast Pass line of The Salt Lick. My brother Craig and I were greeted by a paltry platter of barbecue beef brisket, smoked sausage, and cole slaw.
A weak first offering for two hungry carnivores. The brisket was cold, the sausage provided just a tiny taste, and the slaw was standard. We walked away disappointed but there was still hope: A Salt Lick employee called Miriam was resting on a bench next to the stand and I voiced my lackluster review. A look of astonishment and embarrassment appeared on her face and she scurried away only to return with two platters of meat 3 times the size of the original offering. Thank God for Miriam.
Now that we had brisket and sausage both straight from the smoker, we could give Salt Lick a real review.
- The thick slices were a little tough but the thinner slices were magical, delivering the perfect balance of beef and smoke, tempered with a thin layer of fat beneath the outer bark. This is how beef should taste.
- Craig urged me to eat just the bark. “So good” is what I wrote in my notes. Slightly crisp and smoky, it had a light sweetness to it, a result of constant basting with The Salt Lick’s tangy sauce. The absence of tomato in the sauce allows The Salt Lick to continually baste its meats throughout the smoking process. The result is a flavor and texture which all barbecue beef should aspire to possess.
- Crispy, smoky skin studded with specks of black pepper encased garlicky, salami-like pork. The black pepper appeared later in my bites with some surprising but welcomed spice. My brother’s reaction was just plain “wow”. I second the motion.
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q – Decatur, Alabama
After a taste of Miriam’s Texas hospitality, Craig and I weren’t prepared for the Southern welcome we’d receive at Big Bob Gibson’s complements of Don McLemore and his wife Carolyn. As soon as our pulled pork sandwich with mustard slaw had arrived, Carolyn delivered fresh morsels of pulled pork straight from the smoker.
Big Bob Gibson’s was started by Don’s grandfather in 1925 and today Don and Carolyn run the business while Chris Lilly takes care of the barbecue. Don and his wife first implored us to try the deliciously crispy, tender, and smoky skin, better known as bark, mingling with the strands of pulled pork.
Notice the red-pink hue of the pork. It’s smoked for 16-hours at 225 degrees Fahrenheit. This is what barbecue refers to, meat smoked for long periods of time at low temperatures. What we do on Sundays in our backyards is grilling and it’s not nearly as much of an art as barbecuing.
But for Big Bob Gibson, sauce has played as much of a role in their success as delicious barbecue. In 1998 their Championship Red Sauce was named “Best Barbeque Sauce on the Planet” over 500 other commercial sauces at the American Royal Barbecue Sauce Contest. It was pretty damn tasty. A classic tomato-based sauce, it had a tangy flavor with vinegary undertones and a balanced consistency. You can buy it here.
However, with widespread success breeds competition and if you can’t beat ’em join ’em. Opposing barbecue teams did just that, using Big Bob’s sauce against them on the barbecue circuit. It was time for a new sauce and Craig and I got to taste it at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party. Thinner and spicier than the original, I found it to be an even better complement to the pulled pork. It melded better with the pork’s natural juices and the spice was subtly delicious.
The Real Fun Begins: The Pulled Pork Process
Don and Carolyn led us to the smoker where 10-time barbecue world champ Chris Lilly, who also happens to be their son-in-law and Vice President of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, was pulling two freshly-smoked pork butts (the top of the shoulder) from the smoker.
The 16-hour smoking process results in a moist and tender mass of pork that doesn’t take much force to separate from the bone.
Mr. Lilly was joined by his brother Owen and their good friend and self-proclaimed “adopted” family member John Markus, a New Yorker and leader of the Central Pork West Barbecue team. Below Mr. Markus illustrates the first part of the two-part pull process, the ripping, smushing, and pulling by rubber-gloved hands.
Chris Lilly takes over for part two, the chopping, by what could only be called a meat machete, before it’s all doled out into big metal tins to be served.
My moment of clarity arrived as I ate a piece of pork handed to me directly from the cutting board. If you’ve never had true Southern pulled pork, you’ve never had pork as it’s meant to be eaten. This one measly morsel of pink, slightly smoky deliciousness made my entire afternoon.
The Pit – Ed Mitchell’s Whole Hog – Raleigh, North Carolina
As the afternoon melted away we found ourselves in front of five massive smokers, each fit for a 120 pound whole hog ready to serve 60 to 70 people. This is the specialty of Willie Mitchell, who with his son Ed and now his grandson Ryan, has been serving up “everything but the squeal” for 17 years.
Dotted with chile flakes and doused in an apple cider vinegar marinade, the chopped whole hog didn’t really impress me. Maybe it was because it was the last serving of the weekend, but the various parts of the hog all mixed together made each bite an unwanted adventure; you didn’t know if you were getting tender or tough. The sweet, slightly tart flavor didn’t do much for me either, combining with the chile flakes to upstage the hog.
Conclusion – Why Life is Better Below the Mason-Dixon Line
That barbecue is delicious is a standard truth in life. Being served barbecue by people who pour their heart and soul into it and take the time to make you feel equally passionate? That’s a rarity, especially at big house barbecue restaurants where an individual pitmaster’s M.O. is the bottom line. It’s why I love Georgia’s Eastside BBQ and it’s why Blue Smoke and Hill Country didn’t impress me. Miriam at The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que, Don and Carolyn McLemore, Chris and Owen Lilly, and John Markus at Big Bob Gibson’s and Ryan Mitchell at The Pit each provided the personal experience that I hope still exists at every reputable barbecue joint south of the Mason-Dixon.