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Ultimate BBQ challenge


Rustik Roosster farms supplies whole Iowa Swabian hogs to barbecue at special events.

Rustik Roosster farms supplies whole Iowa Swabian hogs to barbecue at special events.

Each year at this time, Cityview launches a search for our readers’ ideas about the ultimate place to go for a certain type of food. Four years ago you chose B&B for sandwiches, then Gusto for pizza, Chicago Speakeasy for steak, and Noodle Zoo Ankeny for pasta. This year we are asking for your best ideas about going out for barbecue.

Ah, barbecue. Millions love it and yet many of its fans argue — sometimes even fight — over what it is. Meathead Goldwyn, one of America’s great food writers and historians, attempted an answer on his website In his article “So what is barbecue?,” he presented an historical and etymological definition that is 1,493 words long. That’s just for barbecue as a noun. His definition for its use as a verb ran more than 1,500 words. By way of explaining how one word could be so complex, Goldwyn quoted Harvard linguist and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker: “People are under the impression that dictionaries legislate language. What a dictionary does is keep track of usages over time.”

Most likely the first barbecue masters were ancient Chinese cooks. “Char siu” has been prepared much the same way since Confucius’ time when wild boars and other game were marinated in five spice powder, rice vinegar and red fermented tofu to produce its colorful ring when cooked over open fires. Today it’s usually cooked in ovens and made with pork shoulders, then served in pork buns or with rice or noodles. It’s available at a score of places around the metro, from the elegant Great China to vendor stalls at farmers markets.

Char siu has likely been around much longer than the kind of barbecue that Caribbean Indians were practicing when 16th century Spanish explorers first noted their “barbacoa.” That Taino word stood for tall wooden stands built above open pit fires erected to dry, smoke and preserve fish, lizards, alligators, birds and small game. That would give a name to the type of cooking that was developed in the southern United States, mostly by slaves. The style was quite different though. Instead of placing food directly over the source of heat, whole animals were usually placed in deep pits where they were covered and slow cooked with indirect heat and smoke.

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Whole hog cooking was so much associated with southerners that the slang term “going whole hog” was coined by Daniel Webster in answer to a question about what he expected from an Andrew Jackson presidency. “Whole, low and slow” cooking became “southern barbecue” with regional distinctions. East of the Mississippi River, barbecue meant pork; west of there a mix of pork and beef plus chicken, goats and lamb. In Texas it was all beef. Carolina was divided by preference for sauces. Eastern Carolina used a vinegar base sauce, western Carolina a tomato base and South Carolina a mustard base. Alabama developed a taste for chicken served with a white barbecue sauce.

In the last 30 years, whole hog cooking has all but disappeared from restaurants, except in eastern North Carolina and two counties in west central Tennessee. All-wood cooking has been displaced in restaurants, too, by environmentally correct gas “smokers.”

Ribs on a smoker shelf at Jethro’s.

Ribs on a smoker shelf at Jethro’s.

Today, all-wood slow cooking, the method that purists insist is the only true barbecue, is mostly preserved on the competition circuit. Yet even there two recent developments have deviated a long way from the traditional purism of “whole, low and slow” thinking. Many beef brisket competitors now buy Wagyu beef, from the breed of cow that spawned Kobe beef and demands top dollar for its superior marbling. The problem is that Wagyu marbling does not break down and melt correctly at the usual low temperatures (200-300 degrees F). So they are being cooked at higher temperatures. Also, thighs have replaced whole chickens as the preferred choice of competitors, and they are often cooked boneless and finished at high heat to give skin a crispness.

So, for this year’s Cityview Ultimate Barbecue Challenge, we are opening up the field to anything that anybody thinks is barbecue. Smoked fish, smoked cheese, smoked ice cream, and Indian tandoor (remarkably similar to Big Green Egg barbecues) are sometimes closer in spirit to traditional barbecue than a lot of Bar-B-Q joints are. Chinese barbecue, Korean barbecue, Hawaiian barbecue, Japanese barbecue, Australian “barbie,” Mexican barbecue — they all work just fine. So do dishes that might have been cooked indoors and been labeled barbecue because sauce was added. Such have been deemed barbecue since 1913, by no less an authority than the great cookbook writer Fannie Farmer.

Iowa’s Barbecue Era

Historically, Iowa was barbecue challenged. Before refrigeration became common, the genre developed in the American South as a main method of preserving food. In Iowa, ice was more expendable than hard wood, which was better used to heat homes. Still, several wood burning joints thrived in the middle of the 20th century here — Canfield’s and Black’s always had long lines of people at rush hours but they didn’t outlive the 1960s. In the last quarter of the 20th century, barbecue in this state was an endangered species. Kin Folks, a legendary place that took up most of downtown Attica, was a tourist attraction — a pure wood smoking joint that you could smell a mile away. It tried to expand to Des Moines, Altoona and Knoxville but it never took hold. Along with just a handful of other places like Al and Irene’s in Cedar Rapids, Claxon’s in Altoona, Hickory House in Ames, plus Big Daddy’s and Battle’s in Des Moines (which later moved to Ames), they kept the state’s smokehouse embers from completely burning out.

Carnnitas tacos, like this one from Abelardo’s, are Mexican barbecue bargains.

Carnnitas tacos, like this one from Abelardo’s, are Mexican barbecue bargains.

Things changed dramatically beginning in 2003 when Mike Wedeking opened Flying Mango, a pure wood burning barbecue that quickly became a lifestyle statement to its fans, including a number of famous musicians (Lipbone Redding, Jonah Smith, Carrie Rodriguez, etc.) who play there out of love for the place though their reputations command much larger venues. Flying Mango is also known for smoking exotics like catfish, goose, duck, bison, lamb chops and elk.

In the middle of the new century, barbecue was Food Dude’s “genre of the year” four out of five years running, meaning more new barbecues opened than any other type of restaurant. That reversed a 50-year down cycle. The surge in smoking was fueled by nostalgia, by the perfection of affordable gas “smoking” equipment, and by the competition circuit, which grew exponentially after World Pork Expo began holding barbecue cook-offs in Des Moines. This year, 13 sanctioned barbecue events will be held in Iowa, drawing long distance competitors, tourists and manufacturers of barbecuing hardware, firewood, charcoal, meat and meat treatments. Iowa towns soon learned that these competitions were money makers.

Mason City Globe Gazette publisher and “Up In Smoke” festival director Howard Query explained how his town initiated their barbecue event. “We wanted a premiere event to draw people here. I could see that competitive barbecue was an up-and-coming sport,” he said.

To understand barbecue as a “sport,” compare it to professional golf. Both have four major events: the Jack Daniels Invitational (The Masters); the Sam’s Club National Tour finals, formerly The American Royal (US Open ); Memphis in May (The Open); and the Houston Livestock & Rodeo BBQ (the PGA). Numerous others across the country allow competitors to qualify and prepare for the big four. Most Iowa events are geared for Sam’s Club and use its “Kansas City rules.”

Des Moines — Smoke Town

Through most of the 20th century, barbecue was a specialty of the American South, distinguished regionally by the local woods: hickory in the Carolinas and the mountain states, burr oak in east Texas, mesquite in west Texas, and fruit woods in Georgia and Missouri. Things changed with the new millennium. Southern barbecue lost its purity after Yankee environmentalists moved south and enacted wood-burning bans on once proud barbecue towns like Raleigh and Atlanta. In 1998, I asked the Chamber of Commerce president in Lockhart, Texas, why almost all the best barbecues in his state were found in small towns.

“Very simple, son. Big cities have too many encumbrances to good barbecue,” he replied.

“Could you define what you mean by encumbrances?” I asked.

“They come in two main forms — health codes and safety codes. Even here in our town, some fresh-out-of-college bureaucrat proposed installing sprinklers over the pits. He didn’t last long,” he laughed.

The shift away from pure wood burning barbecue also inspired a boom for Q nostalgia. That manifested most notably in the burgeoning popularity of competitive barbecue, which adheres to the old, pure ways. Through part of the previous decade, the barbecue cook off at World Pork Expo in Des Moines was one of the more popular events on the competitive cycle. That brought the best southern smokers to central Iowa, where they competed with local guys who quickly learned that they could smoke with the very best.

Shad Kirton, owner of Des Moines’s Smoky D’s, won the largest prize in barbecue history on The Learning Channel’s BBQ Pitmaster. His partner Darren Warth has now won just about every major championship on the national circuit. Woody Wasson of Woody’s Smoke Shack in Des Moines also won a wall full of trophies. Both Smoky D’s and Woody’s offer much more than usual barbecue accompaniments. Smoky D’s comfort food menu draws long lines, and they are one of the only restaurants of any kind in Des Moines to hire a full-time pastry chef. Woody’s is known for free corn bread and homemade pies.

Jethro’s has not sent pit masters out on the competition circuit, but they have garnered as much national praise and attention as anyone with features on TV’s “Man vs. Food” and “Food Paradise,” by finishing runner-up out of 100 sandwiches in ESPN’s “National Fanwich” contest, by being named Men’s Health magazine’s “Manliest Sandwich in the Midwest,” and as Better Homes and Gardens’ favorite sandwich. They will open their sixth area barbecue this September. This one is called Jethro’s Bacon Bacon, which by some definitions pays tribute to the most popular of all smoked dishes.

Before the death of owner Ike Seymour, Big Daddy’s made it onto both Peter Jennings’ “World News Tonight” and “The Early Show with Bryant Gumbel.” Woody’s Smoke Shack was named a top national barbecue by “Good Morning America.” Cactus Bob’s was featured on a national TV show about extreme eating.

Uncle Wendell’s evolved from a bakery and still features home-baked goodies as well as pure wood smokehouse basics. Owner chef Wendell Garretson is a refugee from Cajun cuisine and resourcefully uses his smoked bones to make amazing stocks for soups, jambalayas and gumbos. His jambalaya often also employs authentic Cajun meats, like smoked cheeks. He even makes Kool Aid pickles, a popular Southern accompaniment to barbecue.

Vegetarian barbecue, like these artichokes at Americana, is gaining popularity.

Vegetarian barbecue, like these artichokes at Americana, is gaining popularity.

Claxon’s serves burnt ends in half-pound wedges, with ciabatta, plus deep fried pickles and fried hominy. Smoked prime rib and rarely smoked lean meats like pork loin and turkey breast share the menu with standards. Their fresh banana pies feature soda cracker crusts. Patton’s dresses its all hickory Q up in a modern café ambiance that would be chic in Harlem. What other barbecue might serve an amuse bouche “soul roll” of southern foods wrapped like a dumpling and fried? Cornbread dressing, cobblers, beans and rice, sweet potato fries, and strawberry cake have as many fans as their smokehouse meats. Cactus Bob’s includes home made kettle chips among its side dishes and built its reputation with prickly pickles and smoked jerky. Whole smoked turkeys, bone-in hams and whole smoked prime ribs added to it.

Des Moines’ barbecue success has inspired an industry of complementary businesses. Sauces like Russ & Frank’s and Cookies, rubs like Mo Rub, wood and equipment suppliers like T&T Landscaping, specialty pig farmers like Niman Ranch and Rustik Rooster (which supplies whole hogs and everything needed to smoke them for special events), and the famous lump charcoal Three Oaks – all developed with Iowa’s barbecue boom.

Today, Des Moines is as big a barbecue town as any place. While Southern barbecue has been diminished by regulations and technology, Central Iowa smokehouses have gained national repute, while maintaining some purist orthodoxy. Today in Des Moines, where there’s smoke, there’s a choir singing its praises.

It’s your turn, readers. Starting now we will be fielding your nominations for the Des Moines’ Ultimate Place for Barbecue. After you complete our field of 64, we will have a weekly vote that reduces the number by half until we have the winner. Nominate your favorite place for barbecue by emailing CV

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