on June 13, 2004
A few days ago, I interviewed a thin, oversized book entitled 'The Big Grill' published by a minor, undistinguished publishing house. The book had all the look about it of a volume destined to go directly from the publisher to the discount stacks, and I found nothing in the book which changed that opinion. The only puzzling aspect of the book is that the thumbnail biography of the author on the back jacket listed some very serious credentials for the author, Paul Kirk. By chance, I soon ran across this volume by the same Paul Kirk, published by the very serious Harvard Common Press, with very high powered blurbs on the back jacket from the likes of John Thorne and Tony Bourdain, plus several luminary barbecue restaurateurs. Like the case with my poor review of one of Nigella Lawson's lesser efforts, I was anxious to find a genuine source for all this admiration. Therefore, I do this review of a book that is dramatically different and better than 'The Big Grill' potboiler.
A superficial look at the size and the cover of 'Championship Barbecue' may give you the impression that the book is similar to Steve Raichlen's encyclopedic collections of barbecue recipes. While Raichlen's excellent 'BBQ USA' gives a great history of the subject and a thorough collection of recipes from around the country, Kirk's 'Championship Barbecue' is almost entirely the story of how to participate in and win barbecue contests, a skill he seems to have mastered early and excelled in often.
The very first thing which struck me about Kirk's description of what it takes to win at a barbecue contest is how similar it is to lessons learned by traditional chefs doing haute cuisine. Kirk repeats the mantra told by everyone from Daniel Boulud to Paul Robuchon that a lot of the secret comes from practice and attention to details. This is why he can freely teach people his recipes and techniques with little fear that it will give them the means to beat him at the next competition. To have even the smallest chance of matching Kirk's performance requires years of practice and experience, plus the stamina and discipline to check a smoker every 90 minutes overnight, thereby giving up a perfectly good night's sleep in order to insure 16 to 24 hours of smoking at a consistent temperature.
The only thing Kirk does not tell us is the recipe for his latest rubs and sauces, as he changes them for each year's competition. He is more than generous in telling us just about everything else. The book starts with three chapters, about fifty pages, on competition planning, equipment, rules, and preparation before he even gets to the recipes. The next hundred pages cover pantry preparations such as marinades, mops, sops, slathers, seasonings, rubs, sauces, salsas, relishes, and dipping sauces. Some recipes are borrowed (or stolen) from friends, but most are the author's own creations. My favorite recipes were for the most basic staples such as catsup, tomato paste, and Worcestershire sauce. The chapters where recipes cover completed dishes are:
Hog Heaven begins with a long essay on pork primals, brines, woods, whole hog smoking, and the recipes. While Kirk is based in Kansas, which is beef country, most big competitions have pork contests and some of the biggest contests such as the Memphis in May invitational are all pork. Note that Kirk is crystal clear on the difference between barbecue and grilling and he includes a lot of grill recipes which correctly are fast cooking over high heat, while barbecue is slow cooking with smoke over indirect heat.
Steer Crazy covers beef recipes, both for barbecue and grilling. Some recipes include veal and sweetbreads, but the main attractions are burgers, kabobs, sirloin, strips, filets, ribeye, and brisket. At the beginning of the chapter, Kirk clearly indicates which cuts are best for grilling and which cuts are best for 'cue and which cuts can go both ways.
Lamb and Cabrito covers lamb and goat cookery. Cabrito is a method of roasting a whole goat that originated in Mexico. Lamb recipes cover Greek, Lebanese, Japanese, Indian, Caribbean, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, French, and plain old barbecue.
Putting on the Dog covers all things you can stuff into a pig's intestines, otherwise known as sausage. It includes kielbasa, chourico, andouille, Italian, Texas Hill sausage, bratwurst, lamb, gyro, apple, and venison, oh my.
Plentiful Poultry covers birds, including burgers, wings, jerk, grilled, smoked, fajitas, quesadillas, Cornish, turkey, duck, dove, and quail.
Smokin' with the Fishes covers fillets, lots of catfish, grouper, mackerel, lots of salmon, lots of swordfish, lots of tuna, crabs, lobster, oysters, octopus, shrimp, and squid. Most recipes for fish are for the grill, but there are some smoker recipes for some of the firmer fish and game fish such as mackerel, salmon, and trout.
On the side is... sides dishes, mostly salads, casseroles, and bakes with potatoes, macaroni, and beans. Southern and Yankee cornbread and hoe cakes round out the list. I am really surprised to discover here that it is the Yankee, not the Southern cornbread that contains the sugar.
The book ends with an excellent section on sources for grills, spices, wood, and charcoal. Early in the book, there are also contacts for the three major barbecue competition certifying organizations. Be very clear that this book is great even if you never take the first step towards entering a barbecue competition. What makes great competition barbecue will make great home barbecue.
With two big caveats, almost all the recipes are pretty simple. The first gotcha is that a grill or smoker setup, even with Kingsford briquettes can be a pretty big chore, especially if outdoor space is tight. The second gotcha is that even reasonable quality barbecue needs a lot of attention to maintain a constant temperature with natural materials.
If you are up to the fire outdoors, this is the book for you!