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Excellent Recipes and Background. Good Technique
on June 20, 2004
There seems to be something about barbecue that turns everyone who writes a book about the subject into the very best expert on the subject. On the cover of `Smoke & Spice', Cheryl and Bill Jamison are touted as `America's Outdoor Cooking Experts'. Of course, similar statements and similar broadsheets of praising blurbs appear on the books of Paul Kirk and Steve Raichlen. The authors go a long way to explaining this phenomenon when they open the first chapter with the statement that `Real Barbecue is bragging food... pitmasters develop into natural boasters'. It is important to note that this book is very serious about `real barbecue', as distinguished from grilling, which is a very different thing. Please note that this review is based on the Second Edition published in 2003 by The Harvard Common Press.
As a linguistic purist, I am extremely happy to see that both the Jamison's and Paul Kirk clearly characterize barbecue as a low, steady heat method using hot smoke from wood while grilling is a high heat method where smoke is either incidental or even something to be avoided. The Jamison's even expand the lore of barbecue for me beyond Steve Raichlen's excellent introductory essay in `BBQ USA' when they explain that southeastern (as in North Carolina and Tennessee) pork barbecue and southwestern (as in Texas) beef barbecue arose from two entirely different sources, coalescing around styles developed in Kansas City and Chicago.
As much as barbecue experts like to blow their own horn, they also seem much more willing to credit colleagues with contributions to the field. As the Jamisons are mainstream cookbook authors who happen to be experts on barbecue, they cite virtually the entire pantheon of American food writers, including James Beard, James Villas, Robb Walsh, John Thorne, Calvin Trillin, and Chris Schlesinger.
All of this babble is primarily to indicate that for barbecue fans, this book is great fun to read, even if you don't even look at the recipes. But, if you do look at the recipes, you will find great sources for barbecue excellence.
Part One of the book lays down your barbecue basics, and I strongly recommend that this be read by anyone considering any of these recipes. True barbecue technique is difficult. It may be more difficult to achieve good results as it is to make some of the more arcane creations in the French culinary repertoire. What's worse, it needs equipment that are not standard equipment in an American kitchen, and, it is equipment that MUST be used outdoors. If you do not want to deal with these things, get a book by Bobby Flay and a good grill pan. The authors do briefly discuss stovetop smoking, but assign it a minor role in the world of great barbecue technique.
Part Two contains the recipes. The first chapter covers dry rubs, pastes (wet rubs), marinades, and mops. This collection of condiment recipes is not as extensive as the one found in Paul Kirk's `Championship Barbecue' and it does not include recipes for staples like homemade catsup or homemade Worcestershire sauce, but since Kirk's book is about competition and the Jamison's book is not, you will not find too much overlap if you own both.
The second chapter of recipes covers the pig. Almost every recipes includes it's own recipe for rub, mop, and other mix. For those of you who harbor any doubts about the commitment needed for barbecue, note that almost every recipe begins with the phrase `The night before you plan to barbecue...'. These recipes require a lot of work. They are the sorts of things the average working American family will be able to manage on maybe a few summer weekends a year. A dedicated barbecue hobbyist will probably manage once or twice a week. The pig chapter owes much to the Carolina style of barbecue and includes recipes for a `Carolina Sandwich Slaw', a `Memphis Mustard Slaw', and spice mixes from New Orleans to Los Angeles. The chapter finishes with recipes for what to do with successfully barbecued shoulder. If you have a good commercial source of barbecue, these recipes alone are worth the price of admission.
The third chapter of recipes covers beef. One of the hallmarks of beef barbecue is that it specializes in especially tough cuts of beef such as the brisket, skirt steak, and flank steak as well as ribs. The chapter also covers a fair share of `aftermarket' recipes for hot dogs, hamburger, meat loaf, and hash.
If I were ever tempted to do true barbecue, it would probably be to do lamb. The next chapter covers this plus goat, veal and game meat. Mexican goat barbecue or cabrito is a subject all its own, on which Robb Welsh, for one, has written extensively.
The next chapter covers chicken and other fowl such as turkey, duck, quail, and pheasant. Chapters on fish and vegetables round out the smoking recipes. Oddly, recipes for sauces which many think are essential to barbecue are placed near the back of the book, including a recipe for a famous catsup precursor. The very last chapter includes a great selection of side dish recipes, including slaws, beans, potatoes, greens, biscuits, cornbread, and muffins.
As good as the side dish recipes are, you would probably do as well or better for them with a classic non-barbecue source such as `James Beard's American Cookery' if you were not planning to go the full nine yards with the barbecue technique.
Of the three heavyweight barbecue books I have reviewed, this is the best for true home barbecue, but it is not the very best it could be. For as detailed a technique as barbecue is, requiring very specialized equipment, the total absence of pictures is baffling. If you plan to embark on true hot smoke low and slow barbecue, please find a good survey of equipment such as you may find from Consumer Reports to supplement this book.