There are a few things all grillers can agree on. None of them are related to barbecue. If you need proof, spend a morning at the Charcoal Store, a dusty warehouse on Florida Street where barbecue purists go to fuel up.
"I had eight different cooking teams in one morning, and all they could talk about was barbecue," says owner Pert Whitehead, who's seeing a lot of traffic in these few days before the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. "Some cook their hog belly-side up or belly-side down, and they argued back and forth for hours. Usually, you get a bunch of men around, they're talking about drinking or women or golf. But these people who are really into barbecue, they can talk about it all day long."
Everybody walking out of Whitehead's shop is bragging about the wisdom of their purchase. And everybody walking in will tell you why the previous fella doesn't know what he's talking about. And among the serious grillers, few things are more controversial than getting wood.
"What was that other guy thinking?" says a stocky, balding, middle-aged man who stopped to pick up charcoal for his barbecue team. As a charcoal purist, he's appalled by the vast quantity of hickory and cherry the previous customer hauled away. "Those logs flame up," he says, disapprovingly. And he's right. Smoking with wood can be tricky, and knowing how to match a wood with what's going down on the grill can be even trickier.
"When people get their wood, it's kind of like wine tasters," Whitehead says. "I've heard people describe everything from a crayon flavor to a nutty flavor. But in this market, the favorite wood is still hickory, and people use it for pork mostly. It's good for about anything. But it's easy to oversmoke, and if you oversmoke with hickory, your meat gets bitter, almost like you were using liquid smoke."
For something a little mellower, Whitehead recommends fruit woods, particularly apple, peach, and pecan.
"Your apple and your peach are milder," he says. "Pecan is in the middle. It's in the hickory family."
Mesquite, Whitehead says, is at the bottom of the list in this part of the country because the spicy wood is so strong and easy to overdo. "Some people use it for chicken, but it's used mainly out in the Southwest where they barbecue a lot of beef," he says. "There's very little beef here, and it's best on things that you're cooking fairly fast, like steaks, hamburgers, chicken."
Whitehead has been anxious because the barbecue contest is just around the corner and his shipment of apple wood hasn't arrived. Among the more delicately flavored fruitwoods, apple has been his best-seller, though the much stronger cherry has been coming on in recent years.
"But what they really recommend for fish is orange," he says. "The only problem is that orange is hard to come by in cotton country. The big fad out West is using alder wood when you're cooking salmon, so I get a lot of requests for alder from transplanted people from California. But it's quite expensive.
"Charcoal is basically the heat source," Whitehead says, explaining why wood isn't the only thing that can add flavor to your food. "What you really want is charcoal that doesn't have anthracite or lime or any other additives, because if you've got a heat source that's not pure, it's usually going to have an aroma of its own. That's not good if you're slow-cooking. Now if you're just doing hamburgers or something that's only going to cook 15 to 30 minutes, it's not going to have time to acquire that taste."
Hardwoods aren't the only desirable material for producing flavorful smoke. Teas are often used to smoke meats for Asian dishes, especially fowl. Though not recommended for slow-cooking, dried herbs like oregano, sage, and particularly the woody-stemmed rosemary work beautifully with meats and veggies that don't spend too much time on the grill. Sassafras root gives meats a distinctly sassafrassy aroma, and grapevine, while strong, can infuse a lamb shank with its tangy, citrus flavor.
"Some woods are prohibitively strong," Whitehead says. "Persimmon is one of those woods that almost borders on being too strong, but it's also unusual. Somebody looking for something different might want to give it a try. I hear the judges at the barbecue contest sometimes like things just because they're a little bit different."
Grilling with scrap lumber or sawdust would probably be a bad idea since lumber is generally made of pine and often soaked with chemicals and reenforced with glue. Pine and other resinous evergreens produce tar when they burn and make food inedible. Cottonwood is almost always a bad idea, though it's sometimes used. Poplar and willow should both be avoided. That still leaves a lot of wood for a griller to choose from.
"And what you're seeing more and more is people mixing up different kinds of wood," Whitehead says. But that's a whole other story.