The South's Best Butts
Pitmaster Secrets for Southern Barbecue Perfection
By Matt Moore
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast, with me, Suzy Chase.
Matt Moore: Hey, y'all, I'm Matt Moore, and my latest cookbook is The South's Best Butts: Pitmaster Secrets for Southern Barbecue Perfection.
Suzy Chase: In a piece in the New Yorker last week, they wrote, "Barbecue might be America's most political food." It's always of interest to me when a certain food works its way up the socioeconomic ladder. Give us a little history on pork's evolution in the South.
Matt Moore: Well, I like to say politicians are cheap, and so is barbecue. Yeah, pork is ... it's long been a food source, a source of life for Southerners. It's most commonly agreed upon that pigs were first brought over to the Florida region by de Soto back in the 1400s, mainly because they can survive long voyages at sea. And when they got stateside, they didn't have to be domesticated like cattle. You know, throughout the Civil War, pork was salted and preserved and really was a food source for soldiers.
And then, in times when the South was not so proud, even in times of slavery, there was rare acts of humanity where slave owners would throw what they called pig pickings, actually breaking the social bonds of hierarchy at that time and allowing those to eat together. So it's been a long, storied past.
You know, barbecue was always kind of the original takeout food. It wasn't really something with a white tablecloth. Most farmers would do it as something to help supplement the harvest, to help their incomes during the weekends because of the low inflow method of cooking. And the advent of the automobile was something that allowed people to really travel throughout the South and taste different farmers' or pitmasters' creations.
And from there, it's really spawned now to almost haute cuisine. You can find a slab of ribs or brisket that can sell at the same price of a filet mignon. So it's pretty unbelievable, with the evolution that's taken place. It's commonly agreed upon that the Barbecue Belt is represented as, starting on the west side, Texas and up to Oklahoma, as far north as Missouri. And as you make your way east, you skip Illinois and make your way through to Kentucky and down through the Carolinas. And then, bordering the Deep South states, with one exception that you skip Florida. And I hate to pick on Florida. I've had great barbecue in Florida, but just ... most people don't consider it part of the Barbecue Belt.
Suzy Chase: I know. It's so weird, because you said that de Soto brought the pigs there. So you'd think Florida would've kicked it all off.
Matt Moore: You know, I went to school at the University of Georgia, so I'm not a big Gator fan anyway, so we'll just let that [crosstalk 00:02:51].
Suzy Chase: So it doesn't matter? I've heard there was even barbecue infighting in North Carolina.
Matt Moore: Oh, yeah. I mean, the Carolinas certainly have their own distinct styles. North Carolina is truly something where you find whole-hog animal cooking over an open pit. If there's any sauce, it's typically just an apple cider vinegar with crushed red pepper and sauce. Excuse me, salt, not sauce.
You know, as you make your way south, you pick up some mustard-based sauces, and a lot of people attribute that to the German immigrants that came over to that area and combined some mustard with vinegar to kind of create more of a yellow sauce. So the Carolinas is just an unbelievable barbecue region, and you'll find restaurants throughout the country that try to emulate Carolina-style barbecue, often serving slaw on top of a sandwich and, as I mentioned, keeping things to a very vinegar or mustard-based sauce.
Suzy Chase: You take us on a journey through the Barbecue Belt with stories, photos, and recipes from different barbecue joints. How much fun was it, doing the research and traveling around?
Matt Moore: Well, a lot of fun. You know, first and foremost, it is a cookbook. We have over 150 recipes. They're super simple and approachable, and when I write books, I want people to cook from them. I love when they turn out as beautiful as they did with this one, but at the same time, I want people to really get it home and enjoy the recipes.
But as far as an adventure, yeah. I mean, it was a crazy adventure, and it's really great that you get that aspect. I always wanted folks to pick this up and be able to feel a sense of that adventure. I think we did 2500 highway miles and over 3500 nautical miles.
Suzy Chase: Wow.
Matt Moore: There's a great picture. I fly a small, little Piper Cherokee, and we flew to a lot of spots based out of my home base of Nashville to Kentucky, west Tennessee and some other places. So you know, it was a ton of fun.
And my goal was to have you come and sit right in the seat with me in the plane, get the behind the scenes look of these pitmasters' kitchens, tell their stories so that if you can't take a road trip like this, you're with me. But if you do, maybe it'll you to go out, whether it's regionally or taking the whole 12 state tour, to kind of get out on the open road and realize that barbecue's such a fun food, and it varies from state to state to state and from place to place to place. And we had a great time doing. I certainly have been running quite a few miles to work off the pounds.
Suzy Chase: You have a Barbecue Belt map on page 15, and as a Kansas City-an-
Matt Moore: Yep.
Suzy Chase: I was shocked to see the only barbecue place in Missouri on the map is St. Louis.
Matt Moore: So no offense to Kansas City, we actually did represent Kansas City by representing St. Louis. Skip Steele is a pitmaster at Bogart's. Also Pappy's.
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
Matt Moore: They're probably two of the most famous barbecue restaurants in the country, and he has spent countless years in Kansas City as well. So we covered Missouri, and he happens to be in St. Louis right now. But he's also been well known throughout Kansas City and even the Memphis and Arkansas regions. So he was just kind of the perfect choice for me.
You know, I love ... I wish I could've ... I've been joking around. My last name is Moore, so I think another great title ... we could go out and hit 3000 more joints and just call it Moore Butts, because there's just so much to capture out there.
But Skip was such a great character. Just a great story to tell, and to be honest, he's probably the most widely known pitmaster to be featured in the book.
Suzy Chase: Didn't he teach you time plus temperature equals results?
Matt Moore: Yeah, you said it perfectly. He said, "You know, cooking is a math problem. Time and temperature equals results." And I think it's important for folks that have maybe never delved into smoking before. It can be pretty intimidating, but you can create great barbecue on a very, very expensive piece of equipment, or, if you learn how to manage temperature over a set period of time, on a $50 kettle grill. And so we kind of give you guys a format on fueling and flavor and some techniques all throughout the beginning of the book, if you actually want to take on the smoking aspect.
And I'll tell people, if they want to just take a shortcut and pick up some pulled pork or brisket or chicken from their local restaurants ... or even grocery stores nowadays sell a lot of these products, they can use that as a base to start some of the great recipes like the pulled pork nachos or the barbecued spaghetti or even tonkatsu pork belly ramen. We run the gamut in terms of all different recipes in the book.
Suzy Chase: What is your opinion on barbecued versus grilled meat?
Matt Moore: Well, I'll throw my wife under the bus. She's from the North, and I always love when I get invited to barbecues from Northerners, and you show up and there's brats and hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill. You'd be shot in the South if you're not slow-roasting pig or brisket.
Suzy Chase: Totally.
Matt Moore: Or something along those lines. So typically, a lot of pitmasters will tell you it's not barbecue unless it is indirect cooked. You know, whatever your cut ... it could be mutton. It could be pig. It could be beef. It could be chicken, over open coals, allowing the fat and the moisture to baste into the coals, which produces the steam and the smoke that gives the flavor to the meat. I mean, that's what most people you is the true form of barbecue.
So instead of firing up hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill, call that a cookout instead, please.
Suzy Chase: Amen. Amen. I think this is the only barbecue cookbook that mentions French mother sauces. How do you link French gastronomy with barbecue sauces?
Matt Moore: Well, you know, if you've ever been a formally trained chef or not, you know the French have five classic sauces. And so we ... taking a look at the map, I kind of felt like that was the same case with barbecue. So you start in the Carolinas where you find, as I mentioned earlier, just pure vinegar-based sauces. As you make your way to South Carolina, you find a mustard-based sauce. Northern Alabama combines mayonnaise and vinegar to create a white sauce.
Suzy Chase: I'd never heard of that.
Matt Moore: Oh, it's delicious. One of my favorites.
Suzy Chase: It is?
Matt Moore: Yes, it's fantastic. A little bit of cayenne for some heat. Sometimes, some horseradish in there as well, black pepper. It's a delicious sauce.
And as you go north to Kentucky, you know, they do things differently in Kentucky. They're always the ones who favor neutrality, so they've gotta be different. You find mutton, but you also find a black-based, Worcestershire-based sauce. And then, Kansas City, Memphis, St. Louis, you'll start to pick up more tomato and molasses.
So we wanted to kind of cover the gamut with five different sauces. We wanted to kind of cover the gamut with five different sauces. And then, what you'll find throughout my travels, when I was able to pry the recipes out of some pitmasters' hands, we also got some of the sauces from each restaurant that we visited.
Suzy Chase: Can we talk about sides, or as you call them, sidekicks?
Matt Moore: Yeah.
Suzy Chase: There's a very popular barbecue place in my neighborhood in New York City, and they offer salads as a side. It makes me crazy. What are your thoughts on healthy, green barbecue sidekicks?
Matt Moore: You know, to me, being born and raised in the South and writing about Southern food, I think there's been a misperception that we put butter and bacon on everything. I mean, certainly, don't take it away from us, or you'll be in serious trouble. But we really did pioneer the farm to table movement. Down here, we've always been growing and eating off the land and hunting and fishing, so that's a big part of what I wanted to showcase.
Now, there's certainly some sides in there like a creamed corn with jalapeno that we got out of Texas that certainly will not do you any favors in the diet department. But at the same time, we also have varied recipes, like a bacon and bourbon collared greens and squash and all those different types of fresh vegetables that we utilize. So I think it's just important that we wanted to round out the book with a very protein-heavy focus on pork butts, brisket, and chicken and sausage, that we did give a ton of sides, because those are just as important to round out a great barbecue establishment or a great barbecue meal, in my opinion.
Suzy Chase: Speaking of sides, I made Helen Turner's coleslaw on page 111 yesterday. Now, Helen is in Brownsville, Tennessee, and she's a rare female pitmaster. Tell us about her and her style of barbecue.
Matt Moore: Yeah, I mean, that's all super simple, and you mentioned it. I think what was really important to me was to showcase a lot of diversity with the subject of barbecue. I think most people kind of attribute it as kind of a male pastime, and there's some great females that we feature in the book, several of which that we wanted to profile. And then, different race, ethnicities. I really wanted to capture where we are today.
You know, Helen cooks barbecue in an old school manner over an open pit. Her husband, Reginald, actually helps her build the fires when most folks are sleeping, and she works that smokehouse from front of house to back of house. She'll wear you out in an afternoon, and she's carrying on a great tradition of the kind of Memphis-style barbecue, but also taking some elements from the Carolinas as well. And she's tough on the outside, but just an absolute jewel on the inside.
And I think it's really important when people read this book that not only can they cook from the recipes, but they're getting a snapshot into these peoples' lives. And the common theme is there's just so many great people that work so hard to cook great food and please others, and I really wanted to honor them and showcase them, because they are carrying on a grand tradition in the South. And I think it was important to recognize them.
Suzy Chase: Tell me about her smoked baloney sandwich.
Matt Moore: Oh, man. You know, my last meal ... I get asked that question a lot, being involved with food. It's either gumbo or a baloney sandwich, and by smoking it, she cuts it like a three finger high bourbon. It's super, super thick, smokes it for a few hours. There's a great picture of us holding a huge slab that probably weighs 20 pounds in the front of the book. And it's just served very commonly on a bun with a little bit of slaw, and she's got a little bit of a spicy vinegar base with a little bit of tomato base sauce, and it's just super delicious.
Baloney has kind of always been a poor man's food. In Oklahoma, they call it the Big Oklahoma Tenderloin. But that, on white bread with some Lay's potato chips and an RC Cola ... man, I am a happy camper.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, I was thinking the coleslaw that I made would be great on top of that.
Matt Moore: Yeah, a very simple slaw, you know? Just sometimes, simplicity is always key. I think it maybe has five ingredients. It's exactly how I make my coleslaws, but I never add sugar. She adds just a little dose of sugar, which helps kind of bring some of the acidic components together. But I think any slaw like that ... and sometimes it's served on the side. Sometimes, it's served on top. Whatever your preference, we, I think, round out the book with probably at least ten coleslaws, which is just a very quintessential and important side to any barbecue establishment.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web?
Matt Moore: My website's probably the best place to serve as a starting point. It's just under mattrmoore.com. I'm not the professional baseball player or football player, and I do most of my social media and most of my travels on my Instagram. I live in Nashville, and I'm a recovering musician, so it's just under Matt Moore Music for Instagram.
Suzy Chase: Thanks, Matt, for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Matt Moore: Thank you so much for having me.