Aug. 13 was a cloudless day in the Valley. Out beyond Los Olivos, where Zaca Canyon Road runs into Foxen Canyon Road, the sun burned in the midday sky.


Its rays parched a curving dirt road whose ends touched down on either side of the paved roads’ meeting. The air was dry, scented by the fragrance of arid plants and filled with the distant hum of insects.


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There was something else on the air that day, too. Smoke lifted into the sky from a pair of rival fires on the farthest reach of the dirt road’s arch. Its smell was heavy and thick like the branch of an oak. Coals so hot they had turned white, crackled at the fires’ base and waves of heat that made the day seem cool, blurred the air above the flames.

The fires were near each other, no more than 50 feet apart, but the real distance between them could not be measured even with the most sophisticated survey tools. The real distance wasn’t a physical one, it was philosophical, cultural and maybe even spiritual. On both sides of the divide, there were people looking for a fight and ready to defend the honor of their home lands. Their weapons were intimidating. Each warrior chose among long knives, curved hooks and snapping tongs. Armed with their tools, they took their positions around the fires.

At one smoking pit stood the locals. A tough bunch of ranch hands, steeped in the ways of the noble Californios. Around the other fire the visitors. A trio of Memphis cooks raised in a tradition older than the country they called home. This was a barbecue throw down, Memphis-style versus Santa Maria-style, and no one was going to get out alive; at least not the pig.

Barbecue is big in the United States. Depending on what data you look at, the country usually ranks in the top five of global meat consumers – and a good amount of that meat ends up cooked in one of our many barbecue traditions.

Of those traditions, four are generally accepted as the main regional variants. Those four styles are Memphis, Carolina, Kansas City and Texas. The differences between the regions and the definitions of them are sure to vary. Each self-proclaimed barbecue expert (of which there are many) will undoubtedly know which region is best and how to prepare their favorite version the “right” way.

Still, there are a few main distinctions most people can agree on. The Carolina tradition is heavy in pork and uses tomato or vinegar-based sauces. Kansas City brings dark and sweet molasses-based sauces to the table that are the most like the barbecue sauces found in grocery stores. Texas-style, at its most unique, is served by the pound and goes lighter on the sauce. Memphis is famous for ribs and open about whether sauce is needed. There are of course exceptions and qualifications that could be made for each style.

This makes barbecue a pretty exclusive club and excludes variants such as our own Santa Maria style. There are those who would even object to calling what we do out west “barbecue.” Grilling would be a better name, they scoff; real barbecue would be cooked over the lowest of flames, if there were flames at all. “Low and slow, low and slow, that’s Memphis style,” said Michael Hudman, one of the chefs who came to the Valley for the showdown. He was more generous than some and allowed Santa Maria style the title of barbecue, but what about those who don’t? Have we been blindly taking pride in our own regional variety of barbecue that isn’t barbecue at all?

The only fair way I can see to settle the argument is to go back to the beginning. While barbecue has done an excellent job of working its way into the American diet, it is not exclusively a star-spangled dish. The combination of meat and fire is nearly as old as man himself. Finding examples of something that looks like barbecue in nearly every one of the world’s cultures is not difficult. But if we limit our search to foods that use the term barbecue, or a version of it, we find the style of cooking has deep roots in the Western Hemisphere.

The term is thought to have come from a people native to the Caribbean. The Taíno people were spread across many islands, including the Bahamas and Hispaniola. Their word barbacoa (or barbakoa) was used to describe a raised framework of sticks. The word was brought back to Europe by explorers and entered the languages of the continent in various forms. There seems to be some confusion about the usage because early Spanish explorers used the term to refer to both a cooking platform and a sleeping platform.

Perhaps it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine an early Taíno, wary of the conquest to come, offering a Spaniard the grill as a bed, but that will have to be left to speculation.

What we do know is the word came to mean many different things in many different places. In the U.S., it defined slow cooking while in other parts of Latin America it simply meant meat cooked over the fire. So while Santa Maria style might not find a place in the barbecue tradition of the Southern U.S., it is more than qualified to be called barbecue.

With Santa Maria style cleared for battle, it was time for the throwdown to begin. The “Memphis BBQ vs Santa Maria BBQ” event was held at the Margerum Wine Co. Their crush pad served as the staging grounds for the battle, and their warehouse played the part of a mercifully cool dining hall, and wine tasting room. Each barbecue team had their own pit. The Santa Maria team, who was made up of fire wranglers from Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, brought their custom-built trailer with two barbecue racks suspended by chains and pulleys over an oak fire.

Team Memphis didn’t have the resources to fly their own trailer out, but did have a borrowed “China Box” to carry into battle. The rectangular box was about 5 feet long and 2 feet across. From the outside it was covered in wood, but on the inside it was coated in military grade aluminum. In this wood and steel coffin, the team from Memphis placed a whole hog. When the box was closed, hot coals were heaped on top of the metal lid. By the time the showdown started, the pig had already been slowly cooking for hours.

The pig itself was a secret weapon in Memphis’s arsenal. Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer run Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in Memphis and have been getting their pork from Newman Farm outside of Myrtle, Mo. These Berkshire hogs are raised outdoors and organically. They are free to root about and generally be as happy as a pig in the mud, until they are humanely killed. Hudman and Ticer said the charmed lives the pigs lead translate to a natural meat that can’t be matched by factory farms. The pig sizzling away at the showdown was brought out from Newman Farms just for this event.

Meat is central to good barbecue, but so are good sides. These were in abundance and served up by both teams. The Santa Maria team said they embraced something they called “Modern Santa Maria style.” This meant a fusion of oak-grilling techniques and Mexican food. Instead of traditional tri-tip, the team cooked up thin strips of carne asada to go with freshly pressed tortillas. Their grilling didn’t stop with the meat. Dozens of grilled vegetables straight from local gardens found their way from the grill to the table. The Santa Maria team’s spread included everything needed for taco fillings and even a nopales (cactus) salsa.

To compete with that, the team from Memphis brought in the big guns. Felicia Suzanne Willet was the final member of the team. She runs Felicia Suzanne’s in downtown Memphis and knows how to cook southern food right.

While Ticer and Hudman were busy slicing up the piping hot pig, she took guests through the Memphis sides. First there was triple-B collard greens. Each B representing Budweiser, bacon and brown sugar, respectively. This was covered in the pickled relish chow-chow. Then came the cheese grits, cooked down in milk for a creamy texture and blanketed in a layer of shredded cheese. Fluffy cheese biscuits were perfect for sopping up all the juices that soaked through the paper plates. The sides were rounded out by deviled eggs, bowls of hot sauce, and bread and butter pickles.

At the end of team Memphis’s table was the highlight of the entire day: the whole pig. When Hudman and Ticer pulled it out of the China box, there was a mad dash to get a picture of the hog. Dozens of people jockeyed for a prime photographic position. There is no question, a whole pig is one of the must-have culinary experiences in life, and the people at the showdown knew it.

With the pig, there were two sauces. One in the sticky-sweet tradition and the other created with mustard and vinegar. The best pieces of the pig went fast, and in the course of an hour, the whole thing had been stripped nearly to the bone. The slow-cooked preparation was hard to argue with. The skin was crispy while the meat was tender and juicy.

As the event wound down and the bones were picked to their last, I couldn’t help but feel something was missing. Where was the trash talk? Where was the brutal competition? The truth was, there wasn’t any. In fact whenever the teams met, all they could do was rave about how good the other’s food was. Hudman spent time eyeing the Santa Maria trailer, taking pictures of the pulley system and plotting to build his own. Ticer tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a thumbs-up, pointing at a plateful of tacos.

At the end, the Santa Maria team even brought their leftovers to combine with team Memphis’s. Turns out, fresh tortillas go pretty great with slow-cooked pork and grits are a whole lot like masa. There was a lot of hugging and shaking hands.

It might have seemed like an anti-climactic way to end a barbecue battle, but no one really cared. There were no judges to impress, no ribbons to give out, just a lot of good food and happy people. If there was anyone who emerged as the victor from this battle, it was the people eating the food. Anyone who can work their way through two barbecues and remain unscathed deserves a medal in my book.


Upcoming events at Margerum Wine Company

Sad about missing Memphis barbecue v. Santa Maria barbecue? Don’t worry, Margerum Wine Company offers other events throughout the year. From 1-4 p.m. on Sept. 4, they are hosting Labor Day end-of-summer celebration. It will be themed around an an American picnic with hot dogs, burgers and more. The event is free for wine club members and $35 for the public. To reserve tickets, visit www.margerumwinecompany.com.

brookshire@syvjournal.com