Saturday, April 15, 2006

Whatever Happened to Virginia Barbecue?

Extra Billy's Barbecue
5205 Broad St.
Richmond, VA

View on Al Forno's Big Barbecue Map

There’s long been a knock against barbecue in Virginia. Though it was the historical birthplace of barbecue in America, the story goes, the tradition died out somewhere back in the 19th century and now is hard to find at all. Like most claims about barbecue, this one is likely to be disputed hotly by a group of partisans, and, if not exactly thriving, barbecue can at least be found in the state of Virginia. But is it really "Virginia Barbecue"?

While in Richmond not long ago, I was taken by a group of locals to Extra Billy’s, a barbecue joint on West Broad St. The name itself is intriguing, suggesting a barbecue man with reputation for serving up large portions. But, as it turns out, William “Extra Billy” Smith was actually a noted Virginia politician and Civil War hero who served two terms as Governor (1846-1849 and 1864-1865). There are varying reports on the origin of the nickname “Extra Billy”. The restaurant’s menu claims he earned the name “because of the extra effort he always made for his constituents”, while other sources claim it was for “questionable perks” he received as a federal mail contractor in the 1820s.

Either way, it’s a good name, and one that has no apparent connection with the restaurant, which has only been around since 1985. But, the barbecue was pretty good. I had the lunch combo plate with pulled pork and sliced brisket—perfect to guarantee a sluggish afternoon—with slaw and potato salad. The side dishes were tasty but totally unnecessary since the two mounds of meat on the platter alone were more than I could finish.

The pork was pretty good—tender and slightly smoky—but the brisket was better, with just the right crispiness on the outside and a good quarter-inch pink smoke ring and the hickory flavor to match. The table had two bottles of barbecue sauce, one a spicy vinegar-based, the other a reddish, thicker blend. I preferred the latter, which my dining companions referred to as "Virginia style".

As it tends to do, the conversation drifted toward other barbecue restaurants and everyone’s favorite barbecue styles. And, as it turned out, not all of my lunch companions were native Virginians. One, a recent transplant from Memphis, waxed longingly about that city’s rib joints and declared them to be the only "real barbecue". Much to my surprise, the two Virginia natives did not come to their state’s defense. In fact, they left the field uncontested, with one admitting that he actually preferred Lexington, North Carolina style pork, and the other proclaiming that the sweet mustard-based sauce (which is found mostly in my neck of the woods in South Carolina) was his favorite.

And what was the deal with that brisket, anyway? It was good—don’t get me wrong—but smoked beef brisket is a hallmark of Texas barbecue, not Virginia. Ditto for the smoked sausage that is also on Extra Billy’s menu, described explicitly as “Texas rope sausage with mustard flavor,” and the red tomato-based sauce that I found such a good compliment to the brisket.

I think this is far more than just another isolated example of the geographic dissonance of fast-casual barbecue. In fact, I suspect the naysayers are indeed right and there really is no Virginia barbecue anymore.

The advertising for Virginia barbecue joints confirms that this once-proud barbecue state now has an inferiority complex. In their “story” on their website, Buz & Ned’s in Richmond, VA, claims to have explored and sampled every great barbecue joint across America, returning with 150-year old recipes and bringing traditional barbecue to Richmond, “a great city, but without a real BBQ tradition.” The Silver Pig Barbeque Restaurant in Lynchburg claims to have “the most authentic Carolina barbeque this side of the North Carolina state line.” Three L’il Pigs in Daleville (just North of Roanoke) boasts “the tastiest, slow-cooked, hickory-smoked North Carolina-style barbeque anywhere in the valley".

The menu for the Virginia BBQ Company in Ashland offers the Original Virginia BBQ Sandwich, which it claims is “Virginia’s traditional style, hand pulled pork, tossed in a flavorful homemade BBQ sauce.” But, the owners are either not very confident in their local product or are simply pragmatic about market demands for they also offer the Classic NC BBQ Sandwich (“Folks down in North Carolina would never put none of that red stuff on no BBQ”) and the Texas BBQ Beef Sandwich.

It wasn’t always this way. The colony of Virginia was the birthplace of barbecue, the soil where the seed was planted and from which it spread throughout the South and, eventually, clear out to the West Coast. By the mid 18th-century, outdoor barbecues had become one of the key social events in Old Dominion society. References to barbecues are sprinkled throughout the letters and diaries of this country's founding fathers, including George Washington himself, and visitors described the gatherings in travelogues as a remarkable phenomenon peculiar to the colony. As Virginians left their home state and migrated south westward through the Carolinas into Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama, they took their barbecue traditions with them, and it is common to see references in 19th century newspapers to "old-fashioned Virginia barbecues."

So what happened to make barbecue die out in its native state? That's a difficult question to answer. Thoughout the United States in the early-to-mid 20th Century, barbecue was making a transition from being served large-scale at free public gatherings to being a commercial product sold in individual portions at restaurants. In the 1920s and 1930s, Virginia had as many "good old fashioned" election and church-picnic barbecues as anywhere else.

Somehow, no legendary barbecue restaurants developed in Virginia that could rival the likes of Arthur Bryant's or Gates's in Kansas City, the Rendevouz in Memphis, or any of the two dozen joints in Lexington, North Carolina. These restaurants helped codify the style of barbecue unique to their regions and, in doing so, laid the groundwork for those regions' claims for being having the one "real barbecue".

People in Virginia still love to eat barbecue, they just don't seem to have much of a distinct local feeling for the dish.

Simple Summer Salad

It's warm here in Charleston, with the temperature supposed to hit 90 degrees today, and that's making me think ahead to summer and all my favorite warm-weather recipes. This one is for a very simple summer salad that my wife and I first had at our friends Janet's and George's house up in Columbia, SC. We were in town on a day trip, and it was hot outside, and the kids were having a good time, so we stayed for an impromptu dinner. George opened a bottle of good wine, and Janet threw together one of those simple but memorable meals you have with good friends--slices of cold roasted chicken, grapes and chevre, crusty bread, and a wonderfully simple tomato-and-egg salad, for which I immediately asked for the recipe.

It really needs to be made in late summer when you can get fresh homegrown tomatoes, but I tried it the other night with some hothouse ones from the local supermarket, and it was still pretty good.

Start with an equal number of fresh tomatoes and hardboiled eggs. Slice the tomatoes about an inch thick and place on a flat serving dish. Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and black pepper. Slice hardboiled eggs and place one piece atop each tomato slice. For the dressing, whisk together olive oil with vinegar, dijon mustard, and a little honey. Drizzle the dressing over the tomatoes, toss over some chopped parsely (if you feel like having a little garnish), and serve.

This one will always mean summer for me.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Gimlet

Like many mystery buffs, I was introduced to the gimlet while reading Raymond Chandler's classic detective novel The Long Good-Bye. In the story, private eye Philip Marlowe and a dissipated playboy named Terry Lennox create an uneasy bond over gimlets at Victor's bar, and after Lennox's supposed death Marlowe drinks the cocktail as a sentimental remembrance of their lost friendship.

The gimlets Lennox and Marlowe drank weren't the real thing, as Lennox himself points out:

We sat in the corner bar at Victor's and drank gimlets. "They don't know how to make them here," he said. "What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters. A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow."
Gimlets weren't in the first draft of the Long Good-Bye. In 1952, as Chandler was revising the novel to prepare it for publication, he and his wife took a month-long trip to London. He discovered the gimlet--and the British way of making it with Rose's Lime Juice--on the return voyage from England on The Mauretania, and he liked it so much that he worked it into the final version of the novel.

Chandler's recipe of 1/2 gin and 1/2 Rose's seems a bit steep, since a gimlet is basically a martini with Rose's rather than vermouth. The 1954 Esquire's Handbook for Hosts, published in London in 1954, cites the Savoy Hotel's recipe as using a ratio of 3 parts gin to 1 part Rose's. Esquire also notes, "A true Gimlet must be made with Rose's bottled lime juice, which vanished like nylons during the war but is now seen around again."

Many recipes today still call for lime juice mixed with powdered sugar, and some call for lemon juice, but these are poor subsitutes for Rose's Lime Juice, which has a pale yellow color and sweet, candy-like taste that is hard to duplicate. The product has its roots in the 19th Century, when British sailors were required by law to take a daily dose of lime juice to prevent scurvy. Laughlin Rose, an Edinburgh shipping provisioner, formulated the original lime-and-sugar syrup in the 1860s as an alternate way to preserve limes, which previously were packed in a 15% alcohol solution. Rose's Lime Juice proved popular with the general public as well, and today is a bar staple distributed by the Cadbury Schweppes company.

The origin of the gimlet itself is uncertain, but it became popular as a thirst quencher in the tropical British colonies in the early part of the century, and it took hold in London as well during the 1920s and 30s. For Chandler fans, gimlets will always be a sentimental drink, conjuring up a sense of melancholy and loss. They are best drunk in a cold, dark bar while it's hot, hot outside, recreating Marlowe's moments of cool reflection amid the sunblind heat of the Los Angeles summer. But, they're good on the back porch or in a beach house, too, the tart lime juice with its sweet undertones a perfect accompaniment to a warm summer day.


Put 2 oz. good gin and 2/3 oz. Rose's Lime Juice in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice. Shake well, pour into a martini or highball glass, and garnish with a lime twist or slice.

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