We moved to Augusta, Georgia June of 2000. My oldest daughter was three years old, and would start pre-school in later that summer. One of the first people I got to know (someone who remains a dear friend today) was my daughter, Claire’s pre-school teacher, Martha. Martha was a true Augustan. An old school southern lady of a ‘certain age’, who possessed the most beautiful, rich Georgian accent; listening to her made me imagine honey cascading over fluffy, buttermilk biscuits.
Martha had been a pre-school teacher at Claire’s school for fifty years. Fifty consecutive years of three olds… that alone won my immediate respect.
What Martha and I talked about most (when she had a rare, spare moment), was food. Martha introduced me to true southern cuisine, the types of foods served at family picnics, not written about in gourmet food magazines (sautéed okra) or served from a hot food bar in Piggly Wiggly (although, their fried chicken is killer). She told me about artichoke relish that a handful of old families still spent waning, sun-filled fall weekends putting up for the rest of the year. Martha knew the ladies who made the best relish in town. Or, Pimento cheese—a ridiculous spread made, classically from just three or four ingredients: Grated cheddar cheese, Duke’s mayonnaises, finely chopped roasted red pepper and maybe a bit of finely minced onion. The synergy of that artery-clogging spread is remarkable and worth every, delicious spoonful.
But it was talking with Martha about barbecue that taught me the most. Up north, to say, ‘barbecue’ indicates a grill (charcoal or gas) loaded with burgers, hotdogs, maybe some chicken or sausages, occasionally kebobs.
‘No,’ Martha sternly corrected me. ‘In the south, barbecue means only pork barbecue. Barbecue to Augustans is a pork butt [Boston butt], smoked over hickory wood for hours until it is falling apart. Of course you’ve got to make some mustard sauce for it, and serve it on slices soft, white bread—the cheaper the better.’
This was a revelation. To me, barbecue was a generic term, synonymous with Saturday evenings and assorted meats, sizzling quickly over hot coals. To Martha though, barbecue was a process an adored all-day affair that would, simply by its size, bring together family or friends to share in the huge roast that lay resplendent, shredded and smoked along side coleslaw, deviled eggs, tomato pie and pimento cheese, on the southern family’s picnic table.
I began teaching myself how to properly, authentically smoke pork. Noticing how the mahogany color of the roast gives way to the interior pink ring that indicates how well the smoke permeated the meat. I figured out the right balance between charcoal briquettes, lump, hardwood charcoal and soaked wood shavings. I loved the process, the hours it took, tending to the fire.
I also made my own mustard sauce—instantly loving its sweet/tart flavour with the zing of red pepper flakes. It complements the richness of the pork so well.
I’ve always deciphered my surroundings by the foods I find there. I try to assimilate, or at least learn about the people and culture through what they eat—which dishes they hold dear. Recipes are so historic and hold such a wealth of information about the people who make them; what they value.
I’ve been using my cheap Webber grill to smoke pork shoulder for ten years now. Georgia, Switzerland and England—that grill has done some traveling. I always making my own mustard sauce, and every time I pull the roast off the grill, bring it into the kitchen and its fragrance wafts through the house, it brings me straight back to Augusta and my dear, southern friend Martha.