There might be no culinary tradition as richly and authentically American as pit barbecue. Like the blues, it is so irrevocably bound to Southern culture and Americana that it defies attempts at assimilation or fusion with the modern.
Predating the Civil War, a pig roast, or “pig-pickin’,” was a celebration in itself, bringing together poor Southern towns to partake in a communal feast. The community is alive today in Georgetown, shepherded by two men with opposite backgrounds, separate philosophies, divergent stories. Where they unite is in a love for the high art of the low and slow, the transformation of the raw to the refined. In the world of Richard Brooks and John Snedden, anyone who appreciates such heritage is welcome to the table. That it courses through the most historic neighborhood in Washington is no accident. It is instead a quiet reminder of what this city once was and who we once were.
More than a style of cooking, barbecue is a culture, and if you live below the Mason-Dixon Line, odds are you are a part of it. Washington, D.C. is an oft-forgotten wealth of Southern tradition, and while its barbecue scene may not have the clarion call of Memphis ribs or Carolina slaw, the craft is thriving. The Beer, Bourbon and BBQ festival at the National Harbor is this weekend. Safeway’s National Capital Barbecue Battle, now in its 17th year, holds court the weekend of June 26. It’s time to sharpen your palette.
Richard Brooks of Old Glory
Outside Old Glory BBQ, the scent of smoked meats permeates the corner of Wisconsin and M Streets like the Carolina State Fair. On a given evening, it is almost impossible to walk through Georgetown without catching a whiff of sweet pork and baked beans. Executive Chef Richard Brooks has been crafting a melting pot of regional barbecue fare since he came aboard in 1995.
Raised in Farmville, VA, Brooks grew up smoking and curing his family’s farm-raised pigs with his father and grandfather. “I never went to culinary school,” he admits. “I learned from my parents.” Though raised in the Carolina tradition — sweet pulled pork with a vinegar-based sauce — he has become a national representative for all styles of American barbecue. If they do it in Texas or Tennessee, odds are Brooks does it in his kitchen.
Old Glory’s position as a true and authentic barbecue restaurant comes as a result of the combined inspirations from each corner of the country. And while all cuts of meat have their cooking variations, Brooks explains that the greater distinctions in barbecue styles come from the sauces. The rubs, marinades and sauces Brooks devises are pulled from the six major barbecue regions; Savannah, Lexington, East Carolina, Southwest Texas, Memphis and Kansas City are all represented on each table in rows of labeled bottles. Brooks, who talks about diverse flavors like common hearsay, is acutely aware of the variables. He mixes each sauce in house on a regular basis, perpetually tweaking the recipes. “Just did Kansas City not too long ago,” he says. “Changed it up a little bit.”
The Southwest Texas sauce, for instance, uses three different kinds of chili peppers, and the Savannah sauce (highly recommended) is defined by a healthy dose of mustard. The key to a good sauce, according to Brooks, is the perfect mixture of the base ingredients — a balance between sweet, spicy and sour.
But there is no true guideline for barbecuing, as Brooks knows, and a lot of the process relies on intuition and an intimacy with the process. As a result, no man’s barbecue will ever be quite like his neighbor’s, and the variations, however subtle, are indeed endless.
“My kitchen staff knows most of my recipes,” says Brooks. “But it don’t taste the same when they make it ... And I always tell them — I say, ‘Hey, you gotta make love to the food, man! You gotta do it right!’”
His process is simple: low and slow and plenty of love. The meat, be it pork, beef or chicken, first marinates for 24 hours, which, according to Brooks, “helps draw the salt out … so it will be real moist when it cooks.” The cuts then get put in the smoker. The smoke from slow burning hickory wood is ventilated through the smoker into the accompanying “pit,” a moisture-containing box, for the meat to cook at a temperature of around 225 degrees for 12 hours. Then the meat comes out, gets slathered in sauce and plated.
Brooks has confidence in the quality and popularity of the D.C. barbecue scene. With the growing popularity of the National Capital Barbecue Battle and the Beer, Bourbon and BBQ Festival, it is clear that many District residents are Southern at heart.
Still, he is aware of the growing health conscience of guests, and knows that his down-home offerings might not be too good for the waste line. Consequently, he is beginning to tweak the menu to better accommodate healthier crowds, fielding vegetarian options and some leaner meats. Still, there is more than a little irony to his voice when he says, “we’re putting some healthy stuff on there.”
But never worry. The slow cooked divinity of Old Glory will remain as fatty and delicious as any barbecue around. The brisket and accompanying brisket sauce will have you stuffing yourself well past the time your stomach fills up. The sticky chicken, Brooks’ personal favorite, is generously glazed with a pineapple bourbon sauce. The chopped beef with Memphis onions, sweet and juicy, is perhaps the most barbecue rich item on the menu. The ribs are a two-part harmony of smoky and sweet. And the pulled pork is no joke. It might as well be out of Lexington, NC.
However, the crowning essence of Brooks’ barbecue is not in any singular dish, but in its combination of all the national flavors. Brooks’ menu is something of a culinary democracy, representing a diverse array of barbecue from across the country.
John Snedden: Rocklands’ Barbecue Whiz
As a college student, John B. Snedden just liked to grill.
It’s not hard to imagine why, given that his alma mater, Washington and Lee University, used to sponsor campuswide pig roasts stocked with jungle juice and endless slabs of fresh pork shoulders — a tradition gone the way of the buffalo when oversized collegiate partying started making national headlines. At the time, Snedden, who grew up feeding on sausage and slow cooked pork in a family of six boys, wasted no time in joining the university’s official pig roast committee.
But what would fade to nostalgic — perhaps hazy — episodes of more intemperate days for his peers would become an obsession for the tall, winsome Philadelphia native. Snedden would go on to perfect his barbecue technique and establish Rocklands, the Wisconsin Avenue barbecue phenom that for two decades has sparked cult-like fanfare among locals and visitors alike, and has since expanded to three additional locations around metropolitan Washington. At the time, he may not have realized where his hobby would take him. In fact, after he graduated with degrees in chemistry, physics and biology, he very nearly traded in his grill tongs and tinderbox for a Petri dish and forceps.
“Part of the impetus,” says Snedden on his pursuit of barbecue, “was I was in [medical] school and just really not happy with what I was doing.” Halfway through med school, he was invited by chance to a barbecue competition in downtown D.C., organized by the Reagan administration. That day, he won first place for his ribs, and immediately began taking requests as a caterer. “I went home and told my parents that I had gotten this opportunity. I was very unhappy in school, and was going to take a change in path.”
It might be every parent’s worst nightmare about their child, up there with going to war or joining the circus: Mom, Dad, I’m going to swap out the M.D. for B.B.Q. To their credit, the elder Sneddens took it in stride, if a bit nervously.
“Uh, they were not real happy to hear that initially,” their son recalls. “[But] I had a decent relationship with my parents, so I think that they recognized that I was not real happy… I think they recognized you gotta do what you’re excited about.”
Fulfillment and prestige, it seems, don’t always go hand in hand, at least at first. The fledgling barbecue operation started small in 1990, mostly catering out of a basement suite in Glover Park. In the beginning, the company would often make what was asked of them, even entertaining exotic requests for ethnic dishes far removed from the down-home American scope. But barbecue was always the watchword, and Snedden was on a mission to solidify its creation into a singular, artful method.
“I think barbecue has been a bit bastardized in the industry,” he says, “because you can go somewhere and open up a can of tuna fish, put barbecue sauce on it, and they’ll call it tuna barbecue. It’s not, really, because they haven’t used the barbecue process … a process of cooking.”
Snedden is understandably mum about the nitty-gritty of his process, but calls it the “grease smoke method,” which he perfected on a grill of his own design. The concept is unorthodox: instead of funneling smoke from a side firebox into a cooking chamber, one slowly roasts the meat directly over a fire — fueled only by hickory and red oak wood — for up to 12 hours, being careful to keep the meat out of flame’s reach. He makes an eloquent case for the science behind it, rattling off the endothermic reactions and chemical formulas involved and somehow arranging it cogently for the layman.
Yet you sense there is something more to it, some unquantifiable element distilled from years of practice or perhaps just plain luck. Whatever it is, the proof is in the product, a smoky, dark-pink kaleidoscope of flavors that’s as tasty by itself as it is smothered in sauce, which, according to the Rocklands philosophy, is more of a distractive accessory of otherwise expertly cooked meat. Still, the house barbecue sauce, a slightly vinegary take on the Memphis tradition astew with onions and peppercorns, is awfully damn good. Armchair sauce connoisseurs will also enjoy the restaurant’s “Wall of Fire,” a sort of library of sauce bottles encouraging experimentation, mixture and fresh experience.
Twenty years after firing up the grill, Snedden’s creation remains consistent. Other than a few offbeat recipes — the Pearl and Dog Salad are perennial favorites with regulars — the Rocklands menu offers just the essentials: pulled pork and chicken, spare ribs, brisket, homemade slaw, baked beans. The company still holds a huge stake in catering (constituting 45 percent of its revenue), still donates food and time to school performances, charity fundraisers and community events, stills mans its four restaurants from a tiny freestanding bungalow in Glover Park, right next door to the original basement. Snedden brushes aside his accolades, instead crediting his staff and family, with whom he consults regularly, for his success. He hands off a good deal of autonomy to the managers at his satellite restaurants. When we tour the kitchen, he introduces the cooks by name. Inside, around noon, the smell of dry rub infects the air, smoke curls up to the ceiling, the customer line stretches out the door.
In the science world, you’d call that kind of experiment a breakthrough.