The trend of food tourism is relatively new, but there is one destination that has been quietly dazzling gourmands-in-the-know for generations. The southern United States reigns supreme when it comes to sweet, smokey, finger lickin’ good BBQ. Each region has its own specialty — completely different in technique and flavour, but sinfully delicious all the way around.
It’s a mecca for food lovers, which was readily apparent when I sat down with David Miller. American BBQ enthusiast and winner of 7mate’s Great Aussie BBQ, he shared his enthusiasm for cooking, competitions and just what makes American BBQ so dang good.
How did you get started with BBQ?
I've been in the hospitality industry and aviation, a mixture of both, all my working life. So I've always sort of experimented with cooking. I came across American BBQ when I first went to the States in the 1980s. It just has a different flavour and the whole way of cooking it is unique.
What's your favourite dish to cook?
I like cooking ribs, whether they're the St Louis cut (which is the bigger cut) or the baby backs. I think ribs give you a unique flavour. I'm sort of tending toward the dry rib now. I'm practicing different dishes along the way because I want to learn, but you can't go wrong with ribs.
I'm actually entering a competition in Port Macquarie next month. It's called the Blues and BBQ Festival on the 27th and 28th of March. It's the largest BBQ event in Australia. So far, 45 teams have registered to compete. The winner gets to compete in The Jack BBQ Competition in Lynchburg, Tennessee.
What started your fascination with American BBQ in particular?
I guess ... it's hard to say. There’s a tradition in America, which is 'low and slow' or 'hot and fast'. Those are the two schools of thought when it comes to BBQ. Low and slow is basically smoking the meat, which gives it the flavour. And, hot and fast is preparing your meat any way you want and then finishing it off on the grill.
But, for me, I guess the attraction was 'low and slow'. You put it in and forget about it. You can do what you want for the next six or 12 hours, depending on what you're cooking. You can't rush it. You get your temperature right. You get your wood right. That appeals to me.
Going to America, that's the home of it. The only way I was going to learn how my food compares to theirs was to go there. Last year I went to two events: Memphis in May and Whistle Stop Rocket City BBQ in Huntsville, Alabama.
What’s your dream competition?
Everyone who’s into BBQ should go to Memphis in May. BBQ competition in America is a big business and everyone goes to Memphis in May because it's a World Championship. It’s the largest BBQ festival in the world. It's a pork only event, so they have three different categories: shoulder, pork ribs and whole hog.
You'll get to meet the top 10 BBQers in competition as well as suppliers. It's just a good atmosphere. You've got 250 teams competing. It's a mile and a quarter along the Mississippi River. You get in there and it's a big bubble of smoke. It's just like magic. The sounds, the sights.
When I asked for a behind the scenes tour, no one said no. They're very keen to let people know about BBQ. It's like a BBQ brotherhood. That's what it is. If you just mention the word BBQ, they're quite happy to show you around because they're proud of what they do.
Another unique thing about all of it is they can't sell BBQ to the public, so the public pay $8 (USD) per day to come in. There are a few different ways to eat. You can join the Kingsford Tour of Champions to sample the [pork] shoulder. You can join a VIP membership, which is about $400 (USD).
Or the best way, which is the way I did it, is to join a team. Too Sauced To Pork is a team run by Neil Gallagher. They allocate 20 spaces to anyone from around the world. You pay about half the price of a VIP entry, but you're part of the team in all aspects. You can do as much or as little as you want.
I was almost overwhelmed of how accepting of me they were. You get free alcohol. You get free food and you get to come into the booth for three days. It's pretty good value.
They incorporate you into the team, so when they're up on the stage, you get the award as well. Technically. You don't get any money but you get to go up on stage to accept the award with the team. That was the best. Turning around and seeing 400 people looking at us on the stage. That was amazing.
Have you actually competed in the American competitions?
No. Well, I was part of the [Too Sauced To Pork] team, but I haven't personally cooked the food to present. Last year was very much watch and learn. This year I want to get more hands on.
Have you found that when you go to the American competitions that they're pretty open with their recipes and techniques?
To a certain degree. Competitions are completely different to restaurant food. That's the first thing I noticed. I had a great time in Huntsville with these guys, Justin, Shane and Whitney from 306 BBQ. They just took me on board.
As far as technique, teams aren’t afraid to share it. For the sauces, you have to get their friendship I think before they start sharing their recipes for their sauces. Too Sauced To Pork gave me their sauces. Maybe because I was part of the team, but it was everything right down to the wood and how long they smoke [the meat], which they're usually pretty secretive about. It's a competition and you've got to beat other teams.
It's like a pit stop. It's a precision thing. They cook it and they pick the six best bits and gently place it in the box. They have a guy holding the box and then a blocker that gets people out of the way when they're taking it to the judges. It's so funny!
Of all the places that you've gone to, which would you count among the best?
It's a good question because there are different regions and different styles of BBQ. For the sauces, in the Carolinas they have a vinegary sauce. Memphis has the dry rib, so they cook ribs and they don't put any sauce on when they present it to you, which is the best way to do it. If you want to add sauce you can. Kansas City has more of a wet rib where it's covered in sauce.
I guess the best experience that I had was at Franklin BBQ in Austin. I got there at 7.30am and lined up until 11am opening time. So I sat in the line with all of these people. The line would have gone for about 800 metres around the block.
The best thing about that is not only is the food magnificent, but it's the whole theatre of lining up. They've got coolers of beer and they allow people to drink. As long as you don't drive. There was a guy there that rented out a little chair with an umbrella for $5 (USD), so I rented that from him.
A lady comes around with a bit of paper and says, "what are you ordering?" and she works out if there will be enough, saying "Sorry, he'll get it, but you won't". They put up a little sign [along the line] that says don't expect much hope after this point. [laughs]
Once you get in there, they carve it to order. You tell them you want a pound of brisket and they carve it up. Even that’s theatrical. Texans definitely know how to ... hospitality is definitely in their blood.
How does American BBQ compare to Australian BBQ?
Ah, hands down, it’s better. There is a big movement in Australian BBQ. There's the Australiasian BBQ Alliance. There was an event in Melbourne recently that was sanctioned by the Kansas City BBQ Society. It's slowly taking off, but it's all new here. We grill food.
With American BBQ, they've been doing it for longer. I like to compare it to beer. Here in Australia we've been brewing since we got here and it's to the point where it's really boutique and unique. While over there, the beer is pretty bland. It's like that with BBQ. Over there, there are different regions that specialise in certain things. There aren't too many places over here that sell BBQ, and their idea of BBQ doesn't compare to America.
The other big thing there is the sides. Everyone has their own sides. Even the coleslaw is different everywhere you go.
What's your favourite side?
Good question! Beans ... a good bean recipe with the drippings from the brisket. Coleslaw is the universal one because it goes with the pork. You can put it in your sandwich. Fried okra is a good one. I've started to do that at home.
Have you found that the authentic American techniques have spread through Australia yet?
I assume that a lot of people that do BBQ here are reading books. Because we don't have pit masters ... well, there are a few people that have moved from America and they come here to cook. But pit masters learn from watching their dads do it. They've been cooking BBQ since they were 10 years old.
It's a family thing that's been passed down, but here a lot of people (like myself) have learnt from trial and error and reading books. The authentic flavours, dry rubs and sauces that Americans create, we're not at that level yet.
It's slowly taking off here. It'll happen. In 10 years time, we'll catch up to the Americans.
If you were recommending a BBQ itinerary to a novice, what would you recommend?
Try to get to Memphis. Once you base yourself there, you can go to Alabama. You can go to Lynchburg. Up to Nashville — it's a short drive. You can go to Arkansas. You can drive an hour down to Clarksville, Mississippi. Not only are you in the home of the blues, but there's good BBQ. There's all these different places. Plus everyone in Memphis has an Elvis story.
BBQ is obviously well established throughout the south. Have you toured through any of the other areas in the US that have a bit of a BBQ community?
I haven't been to too many mainly because, for me, you've got the top 10: Mississippi, Tennessee, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, North and South Carolina that all have such uniqueness. I like the south. There's just something about it.
I've been pretty lucky. Not many people get to go on such an adventure. I've met really good people. To me, it's not about the BBQ. It's about the people and their enthusiasm for BBQ.