Why we're obsessed with Southern BBQ (and how we're making it our own)

Hannah Koelmeyer
26 November, 2014

We talk to barbecue expert Jess Pryles to find out why Australians are going crazy for Southern food.

Jess Pryles is a self-described "meatspert" and honourary Texan who spends a decent portion of each year in the US indulging her passion for all things Southern. Aside from writing her blog Burger Mary, she is the vice-president of the Australasian Barbecue Alliance and creator of the Carnivore’s Ball, an ‘event for the discerning meat enthusiast’, which has run in Melbourne, Sydney, and most recently in her spiritual home of Austin, Texas.

Let’s just say, she knows her butt from her brisket. 

We caught up with Jess to get the lowdown on Australia's love affair with Southern barbecue.

Jess Pryles, "Australian by birth, Southern by the grace of capacity to eat'".

Q: The last few years have seen Australians develop a seemingly insatiable obsession with Southern barbecue. What do you think has caused this sudden interest?

Southern barbecue is also having a renaissance within the rest of the US! I think after a few waves of food trends, like clean eating, fine dining, foraged materials, etc, getting back to the roots of soulful simple cooking is appealing to many people. Meat is back in vogue! Plus, good barbecue is an amazing food experience so it's not at all surprising that people are loving it once they discover it!

Q: And is there anyone here doing it right?

Well, "doing it right" is akin to "authentic", which is such a dangerous word, one that even I have fallen victim to using in the past. As far as cooking methods, I personally give a lot of credit to people using all wood-burning smokers, which requires a huge amount of labour and talent, but I also realise that in a highly urban areas like our cities, other methods (like gas powered or pellet smokers) are the only option. No matter how "right" you are doing it (whether having trained in America or researched barbecue history, etc), I think the safest way to measure a place is whether it's good or not. Barbecue can be authentic and still be pretty awful! But short answer – yes, there are some people doing great things with barbecue here in Australia. 

"Doing it right" is akin to "authentic", which is such a dangerous word ... Barbecue can be authentic and still be pretty awful!

Q: What do you think are the main hurdles Australian would-be BBQers face in producing authentic Southern barbecue?

The number one hurdle is meat, without a doubt. Our local meat is completely different to what they cook in America, both in cuts and in size of the animals. For example, the pork ribs here are considerably smaller and way less meaty than a rack of ribs in the US, and our cattle often doesn't achieve the same type of fat growth (no matter how big we let them get) as standard American cattle (which may be the result both of heavy corn feeding and also selective breeding for biggest, fattest yields). All of these nuances affect cook times, tenderness and the overall result and eating experience. As a backyard enthusiast, it's incredibly difficult to follow a recipe when the basic raw ingredient you're working with is so very different to what is called for. Then there are secondary road bumps such as the expense of using imported wood, understanding which kinds of local woods you can use for smoking, the small range and high cost of smoker pits... 

Beef briskets in a traditional pit, cooked with the smoke from Post Oak wood.

Q: What are your pet peeves about the Australian trend?

I think any purist is going to get peeved about most things that become a trend, so of course I have a few! The trend of listing the smoker brand, or cook time on the menu. None of that stuff would ever be mentioned [in the US] and it's just a marketing device. How long it's cooked and the brand it's cooked on does not mean it's gonna be good. I also have a little peeve about chefs who are using electric smokers (literally an oven unit with a tray to burn wood chips to add smoke flavour, rather than actually cooking with smoke) who believe they are doing "real barbecue". But the biggest offence would have to be "vanity smokers" – when a joint will put small a "stickburner" (wood fuelled only) barbecue on display for customers to ooh and ahh at, but will have an electric oven smoker out back that does the majority of their cooking. Happens both here and in the US!

Q: Carolina, Texas, Kansas or Memphis? What’s the difference and who’s doing it best?

Gosh, how long do you want the answer to be?! The short version is: The Carolinas specialise in pork and whole hog barbecue with vinegar-based sauces. Texas's speciality is beef, where brisket and the beef rib are king. Kansas City is known for a sweet, tangy tomato-based barbecue sauce and Memphis is all about the pork ribs. They also use a dry (as opposed to liquid or wet) rub in Memphis which can be an acquired taste for some. 

Q: Since regionality is important in the US, should we be striving to replicate a truly authentic Southern style, or should we be trying to create something that’s unique to us?

I think it's a great idea to take the traditions and make it our own, rather than trying to replicate something that has so many nuances reliant on location. I just think there are certain things that can't be copied because they are so much more about feel than ingredients. For example, throwing a mardi gras party and getting a jazz band to play will only have a fraction of the soul and feel of seeing that in New Orleans, because there's a certain feel to the city you just can't reproduce. I am a co-founder of the Australasian Barbecue Alliance and we seek to promote low and slow methods of cooking but suited to an Aussie audience. One of the biggest areas I think we can explore is the use of lamb as a smoked meat. It's rich, fatty and can stand up to the smoke and the cook time – I think that's definitely something we can make our own. 

It's a great idea to take the traditions and make it our own, rather than trying to replicate something that has so many nuances reliant on location.

Q: Great barbecue requires some pretty serious equipment and set-up, making it difficult to replicate at home. Do you have any advice for the home BBQer?

Actually, it's rather easy (albeit long!) to do at home. Cheaper smokers are available from major barbecue retailers these days, it's just that it takes a bunch of time to do. But, I've never really heard too many Aussies complain about having to stand in the backyard drinking beer and tending to meat for 8 hours... The best piece of advice is to practice often, and remember that good barbecue ain't done 'til it's done. Don't rush it! 

Q: Where did your passion for barbecue come from?

It's as simple as falling in love with the taste of it, and then running with it from there!

Slices of beef brisket with signature black 'bark'.

Q: Sides: why are they important to barbecue, and which are your favourites?

Sides are palate cleansers, they enhance and complement the meat. Getting a cold, clean, acidic bite of coleslaw between rich smokey meat mouthfuls speaks to the idea of balancing a dish. Sure, I'm very Ron Swanson in my attitude, which is that the meat is the major focus, but I definitely love sides, too! My favourites are mustard based potato salad and cream corn (which is usually more cream than corn!). 

Q: What’s the best barbecue you’ve ever eaten?

Trick question! And it changes all the time, because people change their methods, new places come along, etc. Some of my faves in Austin include Browns, Freedmens, La Barbecue and Louie Mueller.

Q: What are the top 5 things to look for in great barbecue?

Tenderness, Texture, Flavor, Appearance and Smoke. Appearance is a tricky one, since well-cooked brisket actually has a strange grey-ish appearance, but usually the bark (outside crust) is so beautiful that it offsets any ugliness. With smoke, you are looking for the smoke to be complementary to the flavour of the meat, rather than overpowering or weak. 

Want to make amazing Southern barbecue at home? Check out these great barbecue titles in the Cooked bookstore, all at 30% off for members.

Check out these great BBQ titles in the bookstore

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