It’s hard to believe that summer is coming to an end and I haven’t had a single opportunity to fire up the grill. So today, I’ll be cutting into some pork and marinating it overnight. I’ll have to soak the bamboo skewers as well. Then tomorrow, I can thread the pork on them and have grilled meat on a stick or what we plainly call “barbeque” when we were growing up. In Asia, we barbequed pork, chicken, chicken innards, occasionally beef. And they all came on sticks. When I came to the U.S. I was surprised when I first ordered barbeque pork. It was a wet, shredded affair on a soggy bun. I seriously doubted that it was cooked on a grill. But it was delicious and being in the South, it is one of my favorites.
Alton Brown said “any American who can gain access to open sky has barbeque as a birthright. And all that’s really required is heat, smoke, meat, and time.” [Good Eats, “Right on Q”] In the episode, Alton relates how Christopher Columbus encountered the Taino peoples cooking meat on wooden racks which were set above a smoldering fire. The Taino word for the setup is “barbacoa.” So what does barbeque really mean? Alton defines barbeque as a verb which means “to broil or roast whole or large pieces of meat over an open fire, on a spit or a grill, often seasoning with vinegar, spices, salt and pepper.”
Even the federal government has a say on this delectable edible: “Barbequed meats, such as product labeled “Beef Barbeque” or “Barbequed Pork,” shall be cooked by the direct action of dry heat resulting from the burning of hard wood or the hot coals therefrom for a sufficient period to assume the actual characteristics of a barbequed article, which include the formation of a brown crust on the surface and the rendering of surface fat. The product may be basted with a sauce during the cooking process. The weight of the barbequed meat shall not exceed 70% of the weight of the fresh uncooked meat.” [Code of Federal Regulations Title 9, Chapter 3, Part 319, Subpart c, Section 319.80]
Whew! Now that I’ve got that cleared, this is what barbeque means to me. My mom was considered the best cook in the family. Our house always hosted the holidays and all my aunts, uncles, and their families gathered there. Barbeque was one of her specialties and it was a crowd pleaser. We can never cook enough. She would marinate the pork in a huge 3-foot diameter metal basin. Then she would show me how to thread the skewers with chunks of meat, alternating it with fatty pieces and wrapping stringy bits around the skewer. My stepdad had a brick barbeque built in our backyard and he managed the cooking, stealing a stick or two. So barbeque conjures up a lot of happy memories. I used to hate it when my mom declares she’s throwing a party because it meant I’ll be stuck in the kitchen for at least 3 days helping her. But now I feel nostalgic about it.
One thing that was certain – every year my mom would make barbeque for my brother’s birthday. From the time he was a kid, he would eschew birthday cake in favor of barbeque. Of course, he got both but it was as if by saying so, he would be guaranteed to get barbeque. I can still remember him playing in his Superman costume and yelling “barbeque” when my mom would ask what he wanted for his birthday. Happy times.
So tomorrow, I’ll be smelling of smoke and have grease on my lips as I savor not only the delicious, carcinogenic black bits of pork barbeque Filipino-style, but also all the memories I associate with it. And although my mom has been gone for more than 20 years, she lives on in the food she taught me to make.