When I first spotted the old smokehouse door that is now the headboard of my queen-sized bed, I just knew it was pretty, and what I wanted to use it for. I do adore relics, and at a mere $70, it was a steal. What I didn’t know was that on humid, sunny days like today, the wood would sweat and the door would permeate my entire bedroom with the heavenly scent of smoked pork. It drives my dog insane with porcine lust and makes me hunger for the nearest, most rickety Southern barbecue joint I can find. That’s the key to finding a good Southern barbecue restaurant: If it’s too nicely appointed or well-lit, you can be sure the meat won’t be worth a damn and the sauce will be watery and flavorless. I won’t even talk about the potato salad in such establishments—they don’t even try.
Now barbecue I know plenty about, but smoking is another matter. As a technique, it fascinates me—the idea that mere smoke can seep into the very marrow of the meat’s flavor. My brother, who is an avid and very talented home chef, is a master smoker. Lately, I’ve been asking him a lot of questions about how he does this and that in his backyard smoker, and I have also begun researching Southern smokehouses for the chapter The Largesse of Swine and Sauce in the book. Sure, you can smoke plenty of meats, but in the South, it’s likely that the meat in question will come equipped with a snout, a tail, and four cloven hooves.
Despite Biblical admonishments against consuming such creatures, we’ve been crying “gentile” and enthusiastically consuming swine since the first pork meal was served in 1540 in what is now Georgia. You can cook a pig a lot of ways, and God knows, Southerners have tried them all. We’ve baked, roasted, boiled, barbecued, and fried the pig—and all are perfectly fine means of cooking him. But none can compare to the flavor of smoked pork, be it a haunchy ham, a slab of fatty bacon, or a juicy pork butt, its indelicate anatomy notwithstanding.
Here’s a few nuggets I discovered this morning in Dishes & Beverages of the Old South by Martha McCulloch-Williams. The somewhat maudlin but nonetheless historic cookbook was written in the post Civil War era, when smoking was done in a house like the one my headboard came from, not the portable kind you can buy on Amazon. Smoking the meat not only flavored it, but preserved it across the seasons. And it was not easy work; as the author writes, “eternal vigilance was the price of safe bacon.”
- Plenty in the smokehouse was the cornerstone of the old time southern cookery. Hence hog-killing was a festival as joyous as Christmas—and little less sacred.
- Smoke from green hickory, sound and bright, is needed for the finest flavor. Lay small logs so they will hug together as they burn, kindle fire along the whole length of them, then smother it with damp, small chips, trash, bark and so on, but take care to have everything sound. Rotten wood, or that which is water-logged or mildewed, makes rank, ill-smelling smoke.
- Take greater care that the logs never blaze up, also that the meat is high enough to escape fire-heating.
- You looked at the smokehouse fires first thing in the morning and last at night. They were put out at sundown, but had a knack of burning again from some hidden seed of live coal. Morning smoke could not well be too thick, provided it smelled right–keen and clean, reminiscent of sylvan fragrance–a thick, acrid smoke that set you sneezing and coughing, was “most tolerable and not to be endured.”