The Midwest, Barbecue, And Zeb’s All Purpose Mambo Sauce

Midwesterners like pork and we like beef, even chicken but we do not like change.

Well, that’s not exactly true. We understand that change is inevitable, we just don’t like it sneaking up behind us and yelling BOO. We prefer change we don’t see, change that slips on like a comfortable pair of socks that go unnoticed throughout the day, not a constant reminder like a fancy necktie.

Growing up in suburban 1970’s Indianapolis “barbecue” meant baking a chicken and basting it in a bottled sauce.  If there was smoke it was liquid, if there was fire it was a heated oven. This was the logical extension of my mother’s Midwest, the pot-roast, chicken-and-dumplings-tuna casserole Midcentury Midwest. Spice was reserved for vacations south of the Mason Dixon line. But even as we were tucking into ketchup-mild barbecued chicken, tiny outposts of smoke, fire and mostly pig, had long-since migrated north.

Stubbs, you see, is tall. His cowboy hat makes him taller. His hands make him appear well, like a folkloric hero, his hands are big enough to palm a turkey, thick and calloused and more heat resistant than a fireman’s glove.

One was Zeb’s barbecue, a shack I spied from the back window of the station wagon as I was ferried to Saturday morning art lessons. The place billowed smoke. I was sure that one Saturday we’d see a line of fire trucks, the red glare of emergency lights, firemen unfurling their hose to do battle with a five alarm, sirens blaring.

But week after week, the cloud of smoke billowed across the avenue without a fire truck in sight. The smoke smelled like Sunday morning bacon — and slow cooked pork.Everything about barbecue is slow. It did not race north on the back of a shiny four-wheel drive monster truck to serve baked potatoes stuffed with tepid flavorless pork on Fridays at rural high school football games. More likely barbecue seeped north as part of the Great Northern Migration and found its acolytes in city neighborhoods hidden around the corner from the suburbs of my youth.

The migration of smoke and meat may have moved a little faster after the invention of the Crockpot, a handy re-heater, easily packed in the car and carried to family reunions. The reigning midcentury form was shredded meat – it might be pork, it might be beef, it was a mystery and born a strong resemblance to the insides of a Sloppy Joe.

After 1965 when immigration increased, most arriving cultures brought along a tradition of smoking whole animals or primal cuts for special occasions. So here in the Midwest, the Greeks brought lamb, the Serbs brought kabobs, and the Mexicans brought goat. The new arrivals were considerate about introducing their smoky meat. They kept it in their own backyards, they didn’t push it. At least a decade elapsed before various ethnic barbecues moved from backyards and backwater shacks to restaurants. Midwesterners appreciated having the time to get used to the aroma and the bigger, bolder taste.

The barbecue approach to summer gatherings also appealed to the Midwestern sense of efficiency, thrift and justifying any indulgence. Barbecue is an easy and economical way to feed a crowd and smoking a primal cut is a great way to rationalize drinking beer for twelve hours.

A lot of the Midwest barbecue acclimation took place when I was away, working as a photographer for American-Statesman in Austin, Texas and falling in love with barbecue, which in Texas means brisket, smoked over mesquite within an inch of its life, waiting to soak up a fiery tomato sauce, served with a side of collards, some coleslaw or mac-n-cheese, and a wedge of of decidedly Texas cornbread.

So revered were the legendary pit masters that tall tales proceeded them, politicians courted them, jazz and blues musicians and later rock stars doted on them and generations of everyday eaters debated the Platonic barbecue ideal.

In Texas, as I said, it was one thing — smoked brisket – with hundreds of variables ranging from the heat of the fire to the minerals in the water where the steers once roamed and detectible only by True Believers with convictions of a biblical strength. In the Carolinas, it was another thing: pork. The variables were slightly greater, although the convictions were equally as fixed as the jaw of a pit bull around the forearm of any party with the temerity to interject.

In the midwest, on the other hand, barbecue is many things. There had been a seismic shift in the meaning of barbecue when I returned to the Midwest to raise my family. Kansas City, with its spicy rubs, had finally gotten respect. Traditionally, barbecue tends to follow jazz and blues and, by no small coincidence, African American pit masters, whose wizardry with lesser cuts of meats and smoke is unparalleled.

But even with a recognizable regional style, barbecue in the Midwest remained more, well, ecumenical, more diverse, more idiosyncratic than in other parts of the country. Being a sprawl of land in the middle, we Midwesterners are genetically coded to balance opposites.

So here, barbecue could be beef, it could be pork, it could be lamb. It could be a Japanese World War II bride living in in the suburbs of Indianapolis making Chinese take out dishes like grilled hoisin sticky ribs because she thinks Americans won’t like unfamiliar Japanese food. It could be a Greek immigrant couple who lives down the street and invites the neighborhood over for the smoky kababs rubbed with the minty-oregano that was carried in suitcases to the United States.

It was, always and in any iteration, a story. Generally, the story has to do with struggle and triumph and that, too is a popular Midwestern parable. We believe that the people, or culture that perseveres will prevail.

This came home to me one day when I stumbled, or possibly crawled into Antone’s Bar in Austin.  The smell of stale beer spilled onto the floor from last night blues show reminded me I’d been out later then I should have been and the apparition of Stubbs brought me up short.

Stubbs, you see, is tall. His cowboy hat makes him taller. His hands make him appear well, like a folkloric hero, his hands are big enough to palm a turkey, thick and calloused and more heat resistant than a fireman’s glove.

C.B. Stubblefield, may or may not have been living out of his car the day I stumbled in. He had, by all accounts, lost his barbecue restaurant due to back taxes. But this didn’t stop him from cooking. I’m not sure anything could have. He was serving lunch out of Antone’s until he gets his feet back on the ground. Which he would. I knew this as certainly as I knew I needed a beer and a plate of his smoky beef — a heap of lesser cuts that added up to a meal that no mere chef could duplicate.

Barbecue is an impulse, a thing you have to do and if you have to do it, you tend to do it very well and make a lot of people very happy, which is another thing we like in the Midwest, where happiness and a full stomach is the highest good.

Zeb’s All Purpose Mambo Sauce

1 cup ketchup
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons distilled vinegar
2 teaspoons liquid smoke
1 tablespoon molasses
1/2 teaspoon cayenne or to taste

  1. Place all the ingredients into a sauce pan and stir it with a whisk.Place the pot over medium heat and bring the sauce slowly to a boil
  2. Reduce the heat to simmer and let the flavors meld for 10 minutes.
  3. Place into a tightly sealed jar and store in the refrigerator.

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