Your favorite barbecue probably is going to be what you grew up with. I cut my teeth on pork cooked low and slow over smouldering hickory wood, so these last 15 years in Los Angeles have been meager in the acceptable barbecue department. Occasionally I find pork barbecue here, but it’s pretty meh stuff, cooked too quickly over heat that’s too high and doused in so much super-sweet sauce that sometimes I’m not even sure what meat is beneath it. If I want good pork barbecue in California, Federal Express has to get involved, and someone in Memphis has to do the cooking.
So when Margerum Wine Company announced that it had invited some Memphis chefs to central California for a friendly head-to-head barbecue competition with the Santa Maria crowd, I read the invitation several times, thinking that in my smoky pork-deprived state, I must be hallucinating. Memphis chefs coming all the way out here to work their magic in the land of wineries, artisan cheese, gourmet food trucks and year-round farmers’ markets selling practically any produce you can dream of? It seemed too good to be true.
When the good news finally sunk in, I felt like someone had decided to stage “Make Carol Incredibly and Unbelievably Happy Day.” They planned not just to offer pork barbecue in the style of Memphis, but pork barbecue actually prepared by Memphis chefs brought in for the occasion. The pot at the end of my rainbow? The genie from a bottle doing my bidding? The fairy godmother wielding a turbocharged wand on my behalf? Choose your magic–I got my wish!
So Himself and I bought our tickets, made our hotel reservations and headed north. When we arrived in Buellton, the guest of honor was still tucked away under a layer of smouldering charcoal in la caja asadora, the grill box, the discrete smoky aroma mingling with that of the Santa Maria beef on the open grill close by. We sipped Margerum’s crisp, lovely rosé and dutifully ate our Santa Maria plate while waiting for the hog to make its appearance, chatted up the Memphis crew and enjoyed the giddy anticipation of what was to come.
Don’t get me wrong–Santa Maria’s barbecue, which is beef tri-tip grilled over red oak coals, is good stuff. And what we had at this event was exceptionally fine, served with its preferred accompaniments of homemade salsa, the local pinquito beans and cotija, a sort of Mexican-style feta. Several years ago Himself spent a few months working on a project in Santa Maria, and on weekend trips I grew to appreciate the sight and aroma of those parking lot set-ups of tri-tip cooked on huge smoking grills, hungry patrons clustered around their favorites. Smoke can sometimes be your best advertising.
But we were there for the pig, and we were compelled to save room for when it made its grand entrance after several hours in the grill box.
Nothing creates the Ta-Dah! factor quite like the arrival of a whole hog, cooked to perfection and ready to meet its public. Chefs Michael Hudman and Andrew Ticer of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis knew just how to coax maximum flavor from this beast, giving it a low, slow cooking and periodically bathing it in a marinade of spices and respect. I’ve eaten at their restaurant–and eaten well there!–so I knew these guys were up to the task.
The barbecued pork was clean and succulent, flanked by white sandwich bread, the sole purpose of which is to soak up every last drop of juice, so none of that heavenly essence goes to waste. The piece in the foreground of this photo is jowl, cut specially for me by Chef Michael. It’s even more delicate and velvety than veal and certainly more flavorful. When the meat has been well treated, it doesn’t need to be smothered in tons of sauce. The sauces the chefs did prepare were perfectly balanced, not heavy or overpowering. Their equilibrium of sweet, salty, tangy and hot accented the pork, playing a supporting role rather than, um, hogging the stage.
The supporting cast featured classic Southern sides of black-eyed peas with grits, collard greens, deliciously tonsil-punishing homemade pickles and–in a nod to the Californians, a little heirloom tomato salad. A spread to rival any I’ve ever enjoyed back in Tennessee, although a spread back home would have included iced tea, not wine, so California, you win on that score!
Margerum poured wines selected to pair best with the spread, ranging from bright, summery whites to velvety rich reds. Oh yes, we carried home several bottles to enjoy later.
Himself and I had a great visit with Chefs Michael and Andy and promised we’d see them at their restaurant during our trip home at Christmas. Or restaurants, I should say. They’ve just opened Hog & Hominy, right across the street from their original restaurant. It will be a merry Christmas for sure.