The South in a Sandwich
Pulled, chopped, sliced, drenched, dry, or even covered in cheese (blasphemy!), the barbecue sandwich is experiencing a renaissance
> Click to see G&G's Top 21 Barbecue Sandwiches
The good people at Birmingham’s Full Moon Bar-B-Que slap a perfect and perfectly ugly dollop of what they call “hot” slaw on their big, splendid sandwiches. In tense liaison with their rich smoked pork, that slaw turns that sandwich into a symphony. You’ll eat your first Full Moon without really stopping to breathe.
When I haven’t been back home to Alabama for a few months, which is often, my body slides into genetic barbecue debt, sort of like what a bird dog acts out during a nap on the floor as he whimpers and jerks through hunting dreams. I’m not quite that twitchy. But I do carry a Full Moon business card in my wallet for barbecue emergencies when I fly into Birmingham.
The flagship Full Moon lies not far from the airport in a rusty industrial district on the west side of town, about ten miles as the crow flies from my mother’s house. If my flight lands when it’s open, I’ll call from the airport and pick up four sandwiches en route, which is to say, three for me and one for Momma. I’ve been known to rip the sack open and devour one in the cab. It’s like getting an intravenous drip in the ER, but instead of morphine or electrolytes, it’s barbecue sandwiches. Then, over the next few days, as the Wolfman phase fades and my claws and fangs retract, I can get about the business of restoring the long-term deficit by eating more barbecue with a slightly more human veneer of manners.
This summer, with this list, we’re restricting ourselves to the barbecue sandwich. The regional differences between, say, the devotees of the noble pig in North Carolina and the cattlemen of central Texas are somehow funnier and more intense when trapped between slices of whatever they’re calling bread. The many hundreds of barbecue chefs with whom we are blessed in the South pack a lot of emotion and sheer human talent onto that small canvas: Smoke, heat, tartness, sweetness are bound up in a fine helix around the base animal protein. None of this intensity is accidental, but we need to sort of go to church to revisit the culinary theology of why it is so.
Barbecue is not “cooked” so much as it is lovingly provided the opportunity to cure itself in smoke and slow heat. The long, low heat is the meat’s accelerated drying; the smoke brings the dark perfection of the flavor and, paradoxically, helps retain the meat’s succulence. It’s a Doctor Dolittle “push-me-pull-you” operation. There are thousands of calculations at work at every moment of the process. The animals must be properly slaughtered and dressed; the hickory must be chopped and timed and, above all, felt; the power of the coals must be adjudicated; their smoke must be kept rock-steady. For hours, as anybody who has sat up all night over a pit knows. Then all that, too, must be brought to a fine point, by human hands, when it is perfectly finished.
It means that when we taste fine barbecue, we taste the care taken by the butchers and the woodsmen and the chefs who steer this tender undertaking. From the Yucatán to Atlanta, from the Shenandoah to New Orleans, from Dallas to the North Carolina Piedmont, whether the meat is from the cow, the pig, the sheep, or the goat, the story of barbecue is the story of craft. The greatest and most Southern gift that we celebrate, in this list that follows, is the number and variety of the artists who practice it.