I lived in New York City from 1984 through 1989. During that time, barbecue became an obsession for me. This was because no matter where I looked in the city, I couldn’t find one bite of decent barbecue.
But I was lucky enough during the latter part of that stint in New York to find an apartment in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn with a tiny backyard. I bought a Weber charcoal grill — the original 22-inch kettle model — and went to work. I would make my own barbecue.
It did not take me too long to learn it was possible not only to grill meat, but to smoke meat in a Weber. The trick is to build a charcoal fire, supplemented by water-soaked hickory nuggets, on one side of the lower grate, then put the meat you’re barbecuing on the top grate on the other side. Keep the fire low, just smoking, and in a few hours, you’re eating.
I found a little paperback book called “Texas Cooking,” from which I pulled my basting-sauce recipe (mostly butter and lemon juice and spices). I also used the book’s barbecue sauce recipe as the starting point of a series of experiments aimed at creating sauces like the ones I grew up on in Georgia. And throughout my time of barbecuing, I cooked only ribs. With my process and sauce recipes perfected, at least to my own satisfaction. Along the way, I invited many friends into the backyard to eat my experiments.
Among these friends is where the fight started.
Southerners living in New York tend to gravitate toward each other, and along the way, I had become friends with a pair of North Carolinians, Patrick and Jane Day.
They had eaten my barbecue and had told me several times that North Carolina barbecue was different from — and better than — my barbecue. I defended my Georgia barbecue fiercely. Years later, I learned that barbecue experts do argue frequently over whether a thing called “Georgia barbecue” actually exists. Last year, the food journalist Mike Jordan took on the question in a piece for Eater. Here is Jordan’s conclusion:
Georgia barbecue could be seen as amalgamation, taking some of the best of what Southern barbecue has to offer and putting it all on one plate. Georgia touches the borders of four states known for barbecue: Tennessee and the baby-back ribs of Memphis slathered in thick, sweet sauces; South Carolina’s tangy mustard blends; the peppery vinegar sauces of North Carolina; and the zesty mayo-based white sauces of Alabama barbecue.
Whether Georgia has its own distinct style of barbecue is still rightly up for debate, but one could loosely characterize it as super-smoky, pork-driven plates paired with homey Southern sides of mac and cheese, cornbread, and smoked ham-infused collards.
All those years ago in Brooklyn, I knew nothing about these expert opinions, but I danged sure knew that the right barbecue did not have a vinegar-based sauce. Throughout 1989, I argued incessantly with the Days about this until finally we struck a deal. We would throw a party in my backyard. Each of us would smoke some pork and make our own sauces. When we had eaten our fill, everyone in attendance would vote, and we would thus know whose barbecue was best.
Until I began to write this story, I had not spoken to Jane Day in almost 30 years — not because of our barbecue fight, but because that’s how life works when folks move off to different places. But I figured I should call her up to check my facts. It was a delightful conversation.
“So I remember that y'all were telling me that North Carolina was better,” I said to Jane.
“Well, it was the truth,” Jane replied.
It reminded me of the godawful ways we behaved that summer of 1989. The Days and I shared a group of friends, all in our 20s or 30s then, and we ran in a pack. We were constantly together, gabbing about anything and everything, including our upcoming barbecue cook-off. And every time conversation turned in that direction, the sniping would begin.
We drove our friends crazy.
Finally, one of those friends, a good fellow named Bob Meetsma, told us straight-up they were all tired of listening to our arguments and asked whether we might change our tune and just do the barbecue “in a spirit of harmony.”
We tried to be nicer after that. Jane remembered us agreeing that we should both choose the same cut of meat.
“You and I got together — and I'm trying to think who else was there with us, or if it was anybody else — but we got in the car, and we were driving around some neighborhood in Brooklyn looking for this pork market,” Jane said. “It was a Polish pork market, and we were trying to come up with what was the best thing to cook on that grill and we both ended up pork butts.”
Pork butts, in case you don’t know, are the delicious, fatty sources of all pulled pork barbecue. Also, you should know that I had never cooked a pork butt before then. Ribs were my thing.
“And you had a very elaborate plan, from what I recall,” Jane told me. “Do you remember that? You had this very elaborate plan on how the perfect Georgia barbecue was going to be, and it involved a syringe filled with something to baste it with, and you were going to insert this into meat. I thought that was heresy! Why are you doing this? This is not what you do to a piece of pork. God, for the honor of your barbecue, get with it!”
Looking back, I am guilty on all counts. Jane didn’t baste her pork butt.
“I didn't baste anything,” Jane said, “because when you get a pork butt, those things are kind of self-basting.”
I must say, to my credit, that I have never since taken a syringe to a piece of meat.
Then, Jane proceeded to remind me of something I must have blacked out completely. In my mind, for all the years since, I had believed that after Bob Meetsma told us to do the barbecue in the spirit of harmony, we had agreed that there would be no vote on which barbecue was best when the party was over.
I was eager to confirm this with Jane.
“And then we decided on everybody who was going to come,” I said. “But if you came, you'd have to agree not to say which one you liked better, right?”
“We had a contest,” Jane replied.
“We did have a vote?”
“We had a vote.”
“Well, who won?”
“Me,” said Jane.
I already had the ending of this story planned out, something all touch-feely about how we all remembered day when we allowed friendship and harmony to defeat sniping and argument, which is, after all, our ongoing prayer for our nation these days.
But no. That ain’t the truth. I got beat. Fair and square.
Still, I remember that little celebration on Labor Day weekend of 1989. I remember how Meetsma showed up with a painting he had made on an old cabinet door. “Spirit of Harmony Barbecue” has hung on the wall of every house or apartment I’ve lived in since.
And Jane remembers it fondly, too.
“That was probably my favorite party we ever did,” she said. “It was the two of us cooking up food. And you know, it was introducing a bunch of people who thought barbecue was a hamburger to the concept of barbecue, Barbecue wasn't something you're going to see around there, unless you went way out in Brooklyn.”
In other words, we brought the South — all of which can unite around barbecue, if not its particular styles — to our deprived friends in New York City.
The Days have long since moved home to North Carolina. They live in Carrboro. Patrick works for the University of North Carolina, and Jane works for Duke University. And I think we have a precious memory we’ll share until we leave this mortal coil.