My barbecue travels recently took me on a swing through Kentucky, including a late afternoon drive through Monroe County in the south-central part of the state, home to one of America’s most distinctive and largely-unheralded barbecue styles.
We're not talking mutton and burgoo—the elements most commonly associated with Kentucky barbecue. Those are found further west. In Monroe County, pork and chicken are the name of the game, along with a few items you won't find anywhere else.
There's "vinegar slaw" for instance—called such to distinguish it from the white-dressed "mayo slaw." People dress their slaw with vinegar all over the country, but not quite the way it's done at places like R&S Barbecue in Tompkinsville. The cabbage is diced fine and marinated in a sugar-laced vinegar mix until it's almost translucent, and it ends up supremely tangy, cool, and sweet.
But the real hallmark of the Monroe County style is shoulder—pork shoulder, to be precise, but locals omit the "pork" part as unnecessary. In the rest of the South, when barbecue fans say "pork shoulder" they mean whole picnics or Boston butts cooked low and slow over smoky heat and then pulled into long shreds or chopped into bits. Not in Monroe County. Here, “shoulder” means something very different.
They start with Boston butt that's still frozen and use a meat saw to cut it into bone-in slices just a half inch thick. Once thawed, the slices are cooked on an open pit fired with hickory coals. Being so thin, they don't need much time on the pit—45 minutes or less—but that's plenty long enough to impart a subtle smoky flavor to the meat.
It’s served with “dip,” a thin, pungent sauce made from distilled vinegar with a little butter or lard (or both) and plenty of black and cayenne pepper. For me, that dip is the key. Without it, shoulder is really just a rather chewy slice of fire-singed pork, more akin to country ham than anything else. Let it steep for a while down in that tangy, pepper-laden sauce, though, and it's an absolute delight.
Some doctrinaire barbecue fans might declare such a preparation to be grilling, not barbecue. I'll let Western Kentucky University professor Wes Berry, author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book and authority on all things barbecue in the Bluegrass State, adjudicate that question. "So what?" Berry writes. "It still tastes like smoke and pork, and people around here love it. Ultimately it doesn't matter what you call it—grilled pork steak, shoulder, or barbecue—because the stuff is good. Eat it."
Wise counsel, Professor.