After Columbus landed in the Americas, he brought a lot of things back to the Continent. There was knowledge of the New World, sure, but let’s not forget wheat, potatoes, rum, Coppertone, and pool-safe plastic stemware (ok, so I made up the last two). And perhaps the best discovery came from Haiti, where he encountered locals roasting meat on a wooden framework over a fire…now commonly known as a barbecue. Columbus has gotten some bad press lately–but if I were on his PR team, I’d be talking up the barbecue thing. A lot.
Barbecue in the present day generally refers to slowly smoking meat over a long period of time. Slow-cook seems like the culinary balance for the kitchen microwave. Perhaps that’s what inspired comic Steven Wright to share that he once put instant coffee in the microwave and almost went back in time.
No matter how much time it takes, true barbecue chefs/connoisseurs always seem to be changing things up in search of perfection. It starts with the sauce, of course, but preparation, length of time, and cooking temperature are all in play. My friend Kevin sometimes cooked over the course of a few days, getting up through the night to stoke the coals (now that’s commitment!).
Appetites for barbecue in the US are boundless, as demonstrated by numerous magazines, cookbooks, a TV channel (bbqtv.com), and perhaps a quick view of my waistline. And Google tells me that each American spends an average of more than $500 annually on barbecue. That’s a $100 billion dollar industry, or roughly 2500 times what Columbus spent to get to the New World. Maybe Columbus should have brought back more meat and less wheat?
In Virginia, conversations about the best barbecue often start and stop with Pierce’s Pitt in Williamsburg. Pierce’s started as a modest little stand in 1971, and the unusual spelling of “Pitt” was due to a sign painter’s mistake. But no matter how you spell it, the place has become a must-stop for folks passing through–and it’s pretty popular with the locals, too.
I visited Pierce’s mid-afternoon last Sunday and the place was packed with buses, cars, locals, and tourists. You can smell the barbecue as soon as you step out of your car, and there is now an entire smokehouse building out back that is much larger than the original restaurant. Everything is slow-roasted over oak wood, and the sauce recipe continues to be handed down from generation to generation.
I know at least a dozen people that stop at Pierce’s any time they are within 25 miles of Williamsburg, and I think I just met a few hundred more during my most recent visit. Frequent guests include Al Roker, Bruce Hornsby, Willard Scott, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, Governor Mark Warner, and Senator Tim Kaine. I’m not quite as famous, but I always stop through and grab a quart of pulled pork and a bottle of sauce to bring home.
As for Christopher Columbus, he seems like a less controversial figure when you are well fed. The critics are of course right that he didn’t “discover” America (after all, people had already been living in the “New World” for thousands of years). But if you asked me what I wish I had discovered in my travels, I’m going with barbecue.