Memphis Style Pit Barbequed Pork Recipe

There is an ongoing debate on which city is "The Capitol of Barbecue", whether it is Memphis, TN or Kansas City, MO. I have never been to KC, nor have I eaten any of their barbecue. I suspect that there is very little difference between the two, except maybe in the sauce, or possibly how much meat is heaped on the sandwich.

Historically, when slavery still abounded, whenever the plantation killed hogs, the white plantation owners ate "high on the hog", that is, the white folks ate the leaner, better pieces of meat located higher up on the pig carcass, such as the tenderloin and loins. The slaves had to do with the fattier pieces of meat located lower on the animal, such as the shoulder.

The slaves learned that the way to cook this fatty meat was to slow-cook it for many hours over low coals. The fire was tended constantly, for usually ten to fifteen hours, to ensure it did not burn out or get too hot. Hickory was the preferred wood, as the coals from hickory wood stays hot for hours, and the taste that the hickory smoke adds to the meat is preferable over other hardwoods. The fat would cook away, and the meat would become extremely tender and flavorful.

Later, after the slaves were freed, the plantation system died out, refrigeration came about, and people began purchasing butchered meat, these fattier cuts of meat were much less expensive than the leaner cuts. African-Americans, usually receiving low wages, still were forced to eat these cheaper cuts of meat.

In the 1900's, a migration began by the descendents of former slaves, from the Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana cottonfields, towards the north. Memphis was the first stopping point, then St. Louis and Kansas City were the first two northern cities in the migration, which eventually went to most midwestern cities, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, etc.

And, of course, they carried their love for barbecued pork with them. Kansas City was a large meatpacking center, so it was natural that the barbecued pork remain there. And barbecue restaurants have abounded in both cities since the early 1900s. At one time in the late 1970s, there was 32 barbecue restaurants within the Memphis city limits. That was more than one BBQ restaurant per 7800 people...and keeping in mind that there probably were more than 200 other kinds of restaurants there too. Wherever you were in the city, you were less than a mile from a restaurant that made good barbecue.

My childhood memory of the great BBQ restaurant? A place called "Leonard's", located less than a mile from Elvis Presley's "Graceland", that had a large neon sign of a well dressed pig walking...with the caption, "Mr. Brown goes to Town." Built in the 1920's, it was a drive-in, with carhops. There was actually two carhop "islands", as this had been the segregated south, and yes, there were segregated carhop islands. By the time I remember the place, in the mid-1960s, there was a dining area, and African-Americans were allowed inside. Actually, though owned by different owners, there is still a couple of Leonard's in Memphis, and the food obviously is close to the original, as the meat cook that worked there from the 1940's thru the 1960's cooks there occasionally. He is over 80 years old.

But, to be honest, every BBQ restaurant that I ever ate at in Memphis made good BBQ sandwiches.

So, which city is the BBQ capitol? Who cares! You can make your own barbecue that rivals the best of either city, it just takes some patience.

The key is being able to control the amount of heat. Ideally, the temperature inside your grill or cooker should not get above 300F, nor below 150F. Building a small fire...

and controlling the air getting to the fire is the way to accomplish this.

1- 6lb to 10lb pork roast, preferably the shoulder, butt, or picnic. (leaner cuts will get too dry) Make sure that the meat is not must be "fresh". I tend to prefer a roast that has the bone in it to a "boneless" roast.

Hardwood charcoal briquets- a 10lb bag should be enough. I do not recommend the "self-starting" kind as it lends an unpleasant taste to the meat, and it burns much faster than the regular kind. Kingsford is best, but any will suffice.

Charcoal starter- actually, I prefer one of the non-chemical "flue" type starters...but I presently don't have one. Some care must be taken to allow all of the starter to burn off.

Hickory chips or chunks- Chips for smoking are optional...the charcoal itself adds much flavor to the meat, and one of the most popular chain of BBQ restaurants in the Memphis area (Coleman's BBQ) used only charcoal. There are all kinds of exotic wood chips on the market...cherry, apple, mesquite, etc. But if you want the traditional flavor, you have to use the traditional wood...and that's hickory. I prefer chunks, but chips work fine, you just have to add them more often.

Chips should be soaked in water before using.

Don't laugh at my grill...the legs fell off from so much use...but it still works fine.

Charcoal burning covered BBQ grill- I'm sorry...a gas grill just gets too hot and dry for good barbecue...they "grill" fine, but just don't work well for slow cooking. Also, the propane adds an odd flavor to the meat. There are various kinds of covered grills available, the most popular being the "kettle" kind. The grill should be large enough where the meat isn't actually over the coals, and you should have nearly total control over airflow. A "smoker" will work fine too...they usually have a thermometer, giving you more control over the cooking temperature.

BBQ sauce- Barbecue sauce is an important part of Memphis-styled BBQ. It should be a tomato based, sugary sauce, with varying amounts of red and black pepper. There are a couple of local Memphis restaurants' sauce that is commercially available, though I would imagine they are available only in the Mid-south area. The nationally available commercial BBQ sauces, such as made by Kraft, are a little overpowering, but will suffice...maybe add a little catsup and brown sugar. An interesting sauce is mixing 1/2 Kraft sauce with 1/2 Kraft Catalina salad dressing. This particular time I made my own, mixing catsup, Lea and Perrins sauce, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, white Karo syrup, black pepper, garlic powder (which I wish I hadn't of added, I think), and Louisiana hot sauce. It turned out fine.

Coleslaw- Generally, coleslaw is eaten on the sandwich. Growing up, I didn't like coleslaw, and usually had to remove it from the sandwich because my father usually wouldn't tell the waitress to make one without slaw. (very long story) The traditional slaw that was used in Memphis area BBQ restaurants was a very dry slaw, that wasn't sweet, using the harder parts of the cabbage, and some carrots. It was very crunchy, and not appealing to me whatsoever. Today, I usually eat slaw on the side, and occasionally on the sandwich, if the slaw isn't "crunchy".

Side Dishes- In the Memphis area, barbecue is traditionally eaten with baked beans, and either potato salad or french fries. The traditional beverages are either sweetened iced tea, or beer.

First, build a fire in the I mentioned before, the meat should not be over the coals. The fire should be small enough to be controllable. Let it burn down until a white ash covers all of the coals. If you don't, you will be able to taste the naptha from the starter.

If you will notice, it is dark out. Actually, I am putting this roast on at about 2:30 am. Depending on the size, you will be cooking this for 9 to 14 hours.

Place the roast on the grill, away from the fire. If you use a "butt roast" there is a slab of fat on one side of the this facing up. A "shoulder" roast has the skin still attached...leave it on, with the fatty side facing up. The fat is on top to baste the roast while cooking.

Add a few fresh coals and some chips to the fire. Notice the nice smoke.

Close the grill lid, and limit the air to about 1/2 or less. You may have to change this later. The goal is to keep the internal temperature of the grill between 225F and 300F.

So, how long do you cook the meat? I don't have any hard figures on how long to cook it. I guess that if I were to estimate a cooking time...probably 1 hour per pound plus three hours. This particular 10lb roast was cooked to perfection in just over 13 hours. It should be cooked until the fat has disappeared.

Though- the meat will actually be done in about 1 hour per pound...or when the internal temperature is 160F. It can very well be eaten at this time...though the meat will be somewhat tough, and the smoke will not have permeated the roast fully. Not a big deal, some Memphis restaurants traditionally "chopped" the meat instead of "pulling" it, including the aforementioned Coleman's BBQ.

You should add a few fresh coals and a few chips every 1 to 1.5 hours. If the fire looks like it is going out, open the vent slightly. It the coals are burning away too fast, close it slightly. The fire should be just smoldering. If the fire happens to go out or burn out, not a big deal. Remove the roast from the grill, and build another fire. Make sure you again let the starter burn off before replacing the meat. Also remember to subtract this from your total cooking time.

This roast is done. Notice that the meat has pulled away from the bone....

and though it looks like there is still fat on top, it actually has cooked away. This roast is so tender....

That I am able to separate, or "pull" it with only a fork...and that fork is in my left hand, as I am taking photos with my right.

A properly cooked roast really needs no knife to be ready for a bun.

If you have opted to cook the roast until just done, take a heavy knife and a chopping board, and chop the meat into small pieces. Wearing an apron is highly recommended for this task.

Remove the bone from the meat, finish separating it, and its done!

And prepare to be in pig heaven!!

Article written by Frank Stroupe