Contributing a side dish to the Fourth of July cookout used to be easy. You might show off your family potato salad, bring corn to grill or shoulder-carry a big ol’ watermelon.
Then America went and got all froufrou. Olive oil, lemon and fresh basil dressed Yukon Golds in the potato salad, kicking Grandma’s lowly mayo, mustard and russets to the curb. Cotija cheese, ancho chili powder and cilantro leaves on corn gave the boot to butter and salt. Feta, mint and a balsamic vinaigrette showed the plain-Jane wedge of chilled watermelon the door.
This year, I plan to buck what’s trending and celebrate America by going hyper-local and traditional. I aim to bring a classic regional side from one of America’s four barbecue capitals: North Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City and Texas.
In North Carolina, the identity of the state’s eastern and western styles isn’t based solely on whole hog sprinkled with a peppery vinegar sauce (eastern) and pork shoulder dressed with a ketchupy “dip” (western). It’s also about coleslaw.
“Slaw is universal,” says John Shelton Reed, author of “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.” “Slaw is part of the deal unless you ask not to have it.”
Reed traces coleslaw to the pickled cabbage “cold slaugh” of the Tar Heel State’s early German and Dutch settlers. In his forthcoming book, “Barbecue: A Cookbook,” Reed quotes Wilber Shirley, the owner of half-century-old Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro, as saying: “I won’t even sell someone a barbecue unless they get coleslaw. If they want a barbecue and they don’t want coleslaw, there’s something wrong with that person. It all goes together.”
Slaw may be universal to North Carolinians, but its interpretation is not. A creamy, mayonnaise-based slaw, sometimes seasoned with mustard, celery seed, onion, and sugar, is common east of Raleigh. In the Piedmont area of western North Carolina, around the small town of Lexington, the slaw is closer to the original slaugh. It’s just chopped cabbage tossed in a peppery ketchup-laced vinegar jus known as a Piedmont dip. The dressing is basically the same as the barbecue sauce served with the pulled pork around Lexington.
Where the creamy eastern style soothes the piquant flavor of the vinegar-pepper-doused pork, the Piedmont style amplifies the flavor of the dip-sprinkled meat. The combination works because of the cold crunch of the chopped cabbage against the soft, warm pork. “It’s all about the texture,” Reed says.
In Memphis, side dishes get wacky. There’s barbecue pizza and barbecue nachos. The most famous side? Barbecue spaghetti. The story goes that Brady Vincent, co-owner of the now-defunct Brady and Lil’s, invented barbecue spaghetti in the 1950s as a way to stand out from the crowd in barbecue-crazed Memphis. Over time, the dish caught on.
I first happened upon it at a competing barbecue joint back in the early 1980s. My initial thought was that someone had made a terrible mistake. The glob of overly sweet sauce overwhelmed the pork’s flavor and drenched a slithery pile of mushy noodles. The whole thing struck me as a desecration of two great cuisines. But I tried it again elsewhere. And again somewhere else. Slowly, I began not only to understand it but to appreciate this dish, including the idea that what seems like an entree was conceived as a side, and functions as one.
I never tried it at Brady and Lil’s. In 1980, a couple of years before my Memphis visit, the joint was sold. The new owner renamed the business the Bar-B-Q Shop. But while Brady and Lil’s may be gone, Vincent’s creation lives on. Barbecue spaghetti is ubiquitous in the River City, and the owner of the Bar-B-Q Shop says he uses Vincent’s exact same recipe.
Like Memphis, Kansas City serves a variety of side dishes, including mac and cheese and french fries. But the one most associated with the city is baked beans. “It’s not only the sauce in Kansas City,” says Ardie Davis, a Kansas City resident who has written several barbecue books and founded the American Royal International BBQ Sauce, Rub & Baste Contest. “But when people think of Kansas City sweet sauce, baked beans are also what they think of. Usually, they’re made with leftover brisket or rib scraps, sometimes with jalapenos.”
Although baked beans are often associated with New England, Davis speculates that in Kansas City they are a variant on the pinto beans found in Missouri’s closer neighbor, Texas. “Arthur Bryant came from Texas,” Davis says, referring to the patriarch of Kansas City barbecue. “Kansas City has been influenced by Texas.” Then, he says, “we just perfected it.”
One of the oldest side dishes in Southern barbecue might be those Texas beans. In central Texas, where the preeminent style of the state’s barbecue originated, there are three standard sides: a creamy coleslaw, a somewhat mashed potato salad and pinto beans.
The beans are native to the state; Native Americans boiled them in clay pots. They became a staple in Texas cooking and remain so today. In December, Texas Monthly food editor Patricia Sharpe wrote an essay about the meals she ate growing up in the Lone Star State. A bowl of pinto beans “seasoned with salt pork would appear on the stove, slowly simmering down almost to mush,” she wrote. Served with corn bread, the meal was considered a relic of hard times.
Yet even now, with Texas enjoying tremendous culinary experimentation, she feels “a sharp hunger for something simple and straightforward.” Her way to sate that hunger? Corn bread and pinto beans. As one of the headlines on her article puts it, they “taught me who I was — and who we are as Texans.”
No one makes a fuss over pinto beans. As a transplant to Texas in the 1970s, I didn’t understand their appeal. They were so . . . plain. Soupy and brown, with little more than salt, pepper and maybe a dash of chili powder or cayenne, they were the wallflower at the dance. Forkful by forkful, though, I came to love their creamy flavor and gooey texture. I also like that eating them with barbecue is akin to being a member of a secret society. Their “perfected” counterparts, sweet baked beans, are so tarted up in their desire to please that they’re the streetwalkers of the legume world. The unaffectedness of pinto beans, conversely, makes for something true and beautiful.
It’s not froufrou in the slightest, and this Fourth of July, that’s just the way I like it.