With several popular books, including The Barbecue America Cookbook and The Big Book of Barbecue Sides, under his belt Rick Browne -- the guy wearing the red-checkered tablecloth -- has become one of America's leading experts on the art of barbecue. He's the godfather of beer-butt chicken (where you cram a full can of beer up a chicken's rump and put it on the grill), the spokesperson for Cattlemen's Barbecue Sauce, and, thanks to his Barbecue America series on the Outdoor Channel, a familiar television personality.
Browne is a uniter, not a divider, and his mission, or so it seems, is to end the regional feuds over what is and isn't "real" barbecue. He wants to help his fellow Americans realize it's all good. Well, except when it isn't.
Flyer: How does a person go about becoming an expert on barbecue? That seems like a pretty good gig.
Browne: I started grilling in college because my roommates couldn't cook. After college, I worked as a travel writer and photographer, and while I was on assignment in Kansas City [Missouri], I was taken to Arthur's Barbecue. I'm from the West Coast where the barbecue isn't very good, and this was like -- wow! ... I went back to Kansas City for the American Royal Barbecue Contest and was just blown away. That's when I was told there was an even bigger barbecue contest in Memphis. That's when I got the idea for the book Barbecue America.
Which you co-wrote with Jack Bettridge.
Yes. For the trip [across the country], I had two shirts made from tablecloths. I figured we needed a brand, but my partner is from New England and he said, "No way in hell am I wearing a tablecloth." Two months later Regis Philbin calls our publisher and said, "We want one of your authors on the show." The publisher asked which one he wanted, and he said "the one in the shirt."
As an expert on barbecue and barbecue contests, is the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest everything it's cracked up to be?
Absolutely. And it's not just about the size of the contest. It's about the spirit. It's a huge party, like Mardi Gras, but with great barbecue. The big difference between the American Royal and Memphis In May is if somebody at the American Royal recognizes you as an outsider, they'll ask, "Have you had anything to eat?" At Memphis In May, they'll ask, "Have you had anything to drink?"
You think a lot of the regional squabbling over who makes the best barbecue is silly.
Oh yeah. A lot of people have these firm definitions. It's not barbecue unless it's been smoked for 12 hours over hand-cut hickory from Daddy's farm. As far as I'm concerned, if it's cooked outside on a grill -- over coals or gas -- it's barbecue. If it tastes like barbecue, it's barbecue. Some people will spit in your face if you tell them that, but if it tastes good, I don't care if it was cooked on the engine of an old truck.
What are some common mistakes grillers make?
I don't like over-sauced ribs. Put the sauce on the side. I had barbecue in Detroit one time, and it was all dipped in a pot of sauce. For all I knew I could have been eating possum tail. Also, in the Midwest, they have this idea that barbecue should fall off the bone, and that's not right. Good barbecue should fight you a little bit.
Liquid smoke. I've known people who pour it into their sauces, and it's awful and bitter.
Do you have any sound advice for grillers?
Yes. Get out of your comfort zones, the clichés. If you live in North Carolina, try a Texas-style sauce or a California-style sauce. Try something different sometime. One time I was at this little place in Starkville, Mississippi, and they served me a deep-fried barbecue rib.
Yes! Who has ever heard of a deep-fried rib? But it was fantastic.