Barbecue in the Bluegrass


“We are in the thick of summer, and that is a fine time to discuss one of my favorite foods and food topics — barbecue (or the often-abbreviated BBQ.) This can be a confusing topic to some because of varying definitions and regional preferences surrounding this term. It almost becomes a semantic nightmare. Getting too hung up on that aspect takes away from the joy of the food, but some discussion around its history is useful. Aside from this article, a good resource for barbecue information is the National Barbecue Association (www.nbbqa.org).

Let’s start with the name. According to Wikipedia and other sources, there are various opinions on how the term evolved. Theories range from origins with the Taino people of the Caribbean to French origins. The French word for barbecue is — barbecue! However, there is another plausible origin for the abbreviated “BBQ” that comes from the days of roadhouses. Many were pool halls and beer joints and advertised themselves as “Bar, Beer and Cues,” which shortened over time to BBQ. I am certainly no etymologist, but I see plausibility in all the theories and will leave it at that.

The term barbecue can mean different things to different people. It can be a noun (a party, a cooking device, etc.) or a verb, referring to the act of cooking. To some, it’s merely a sauce, and a trip to the grocery store will yield many options. The four categories of sauces are mustard-based, vinegar-based and two tomato versions (light and heavy). In Kentucky, you will generally find variations of the tomato-based version. To others, it’s a dry rub seasoning that is applied to the meat or whatever is being barbecued.

Then there is the meat. The South historically has been a pork barbecue region due to the fact that pigs were an economical and low-maintenance food supply. In the Southwest, barbecue has always tended to be a beef product. In all regions of the United States and throughout the world, barbecues have been events that involved a lot of time and a gathering of many people. Another variation is the cooking method, which can involve indirect heat (favored by serious practitioners) or various other methods that some would call grilling or smoking.

Kentucky, having Southern roots, is a strong barbecue state, although the western region of the state has a stronger reputation. In that region, there is actually a “BBQ Trail” much like our Bourbon Trail. However, the Bluegrass region has many options for the consumer from the offerings of many chain restaurants to various independent establishments.

The establishment that is, in my opinion, front and center among the options is Billy’s BAR-B-Q (www.billysbarbq.com). In the restaurant business and in particular the independent restaurant sector, the true test is the test of time. Billy’s

BAR-B-Q has been in “bidnuss” since 1978, and the reason I know that is not because of their Web site, which I recommend all readers of this article visit; It’s because I have been a loyal customer since they opened. Owner Bob Stubblefield still works the business, and he is the one who brought genuine West Kentucky real pit barbecue to Lexington at his location on Cochran Road, which is a converted Sunoco gas station.

In my not-too-humble opinion, good barbecue is good because of love. By that I mean the methods, the ingredients, the wood used, the cooking apparatus and the overall process that makes the product great is born of a love of the product and process. It is a love that is accumulated over sometimes decades, but also sometimes generations of people involved in any particular recipe or product. There is something about the product that touches the culinary soul in a way many other food categories do not. For me, to go to Billy’s and get a Pork Blitz, Ho-Made Onion Rings and Mexican Cornbread — well, it just doesn’t get any better.

However, Lexington does have other options. Applecreek BAR-B-Q (www.applecreek.net) is located on Pasadena Drive and offers a very good product. Ribs By Anthony offers barbecue ribs on a catered basis, and you can find Old Happy Days Barbeque Sauce in many local grocery stores. Additionally, there are some fine chain restaurants that serve fine product such as Corky’s, Tony Roma’s, and Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q.

In closing, I will say that great barbecue is more than an eating experience. When a group sits down and starts eating great barbecue, it gets quiet — real quiet. They are reveling in something that gets to the core of the human relationship with the food we eat. So let’s do a summer salute to “good Q” wherever it’s served!

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