Side Dish

Discomfort food

Will someone please explain barbecue to me? I don't mean grilling; everybody, every man at least, likes to grill, once in a while anyway: It satisfies some atavistic, species-specific urge to char food in the open air. What I don't get is barbecue: the willful spoiling of perfectly good meat and fish by insensitive cooking, while simultaneously drowning natural flavor in a rank assortment of powerful and ill-assorted condiments that numb the taste buds, ravage the sinuses, and cloy the appetite. I know that barbecue, strictly speaking, has nothing to do with what you put on the meat but with how you cook it: by indirect, air-borne heat. I know that because last weekend, for the first and very likely last time in my life, I attended a barbecuing contest. I was a judge in the salmon division, and after sampling 34 versions of barbecued salmon, I came to one clear judgment, which I here share freely: Do not barbecue salmon. Bad idea. Salmon is delicate; its cooking requires constant supervision, not enclosure in a dark, hot space. Of the Copper River sockeye fillets I sampled, about half were overdone and about half underdone, so I can't help suspecting that the five or so that turned out perfectly had more to do with luck than skill. As for flavor, the pattern was even more skewed: The best fish was the one with no detectable trace of saucing, the next best the one with the least, and so on down the line. Before, between, and after my bouts of salmon sampling, I did my best to penetrate the barbecue mystique. Here was pork butt, reduced by long, slow, moist heat to delicate shreds entirely devoid of any taste at all; here was prime leg of lamb, dry and stiff and drowned in a semifluid reminiscent of vinegar-soaked spoiled papaya. Here, beef ribs, slithery with sugar-saturated fat; there, a chicken breast turned to rust-colored fiberboard. What is the purpose of so much soulless meat torture? Is it competition that brings out the worst in otherwise civilized citizens? Is it the fatal urge to twiddle and tweak and see what happens? Is it a desperate return to our roots, to the way our frontier forebears cooked meat that was of marginal quality and often not all that fresh in the first place? But never mind the purpose, to hell with the purpose: Does anybody actually like the way this stuff tastes?

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