Going Whole Hog for Barbecue

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By Peter Lineberry, Contributing Writer

Cover_JulyWhen discussing the summertime culinary topic of barbecue, it’s important to clarify a few matters. For example, does barbecue refer to the meat itself, or perhaps it’s the festive outdoor event where it’s served? Furthermore, is it properly spelled “barbecue,” “barbeque,” or the abbreviated “BBQ”? The correct answer to both, of course, is “All of
the above.”

Barbecue permeates American culture like the smoke that slowly seeps into the meat; you’ll find numerous regional takes on flavor and cooking styles. Distinguishing characteristics of modern barbecuing also differ depending on one’s upbringing or perspective. This includes the type of log used to create the smoky scents and flavor. Most often it’s hickory, but some prefer apple, cherry, mesquite, and there are many others. Which is best is not without argument, especially among foodies.

Another is the “slow and low” process of barbecue cooking (generally between 180 and 220 degrees Fahrenheit), which can take many hours of preparation. Unlike the direct high heat of a grill, barbecue uses indirect heat by keeping the fire at a certain level below the meat or in a separate compartment altogether, where the heat and smoke are distributed via convection.

A Little ’Cue Background
Although our focus here is on barbecue as practiced and perfected in the U.S., barbecue is an international term with countless variations. Its origins go back to when man first began cooking over a fire. When Spanish explorers encountered people in the Caribbean and Florida using a “sacred fire pit” for cooking goats, fish and other game, the native word was brought back to Europe as “barbacoa.” It first appeared in print in 1526.

So we’re dealing with a cooking method and a source of food that embodies centuries of tradition and yet triggers debate wherever one travels. Luckily, rather than visit the self- proclaimed hotbeds of barbecue, such as Memphis, Kansas City or pretty much anywhere in the Carolinas or Georgia, we’ve got all the good stuff nearby. Let’s hop in our Prince William Living pickup, take a cross-county road trip, find some good eats and meet a few of the people who put it on your table.

Owner of Dixie Bones, Nelson Head, at the “Pig Table” in his barbecue establishment.

Owner of Dixie Bones, Nelson Head, at the “Pig Table” in his barbecue establishment.

Whether we’re talking about pulled pork, St. Louis baby back ribs or Texas beef brisket, and regardless if you prefer your ‘cue from a restaurant, catering service or your patio grill, there’s something for every taste in the melting pot that’s Prince William. A meting pot of barbecue—now doesn’t that sound good!

Down-Home BBQ
We begin our tasty journey on Occoquan Road
in Woodbridge, where Dixie Bones founder Nelson Head, an Alabama native and former Navy fighter pilot, has been serving up down-home delicacies since 1996. “It’s something that a lot of Southerners do as a hobby,” he said. “There’s regional and Southern pride in what we do.”

Along with fresh sides and desserts, Dixie Bones serves chopped pork, spare ribs, barbecue chicken and beef brisket, prepared in one of several ovens known as pits or pit smokers. When dealing with larger cuts of meat, such as pork shoulder, “you have to cook it a very long time at a very low temperature,” Head said. That often means overnight.

Tables are set with a variety of barbecue sauces: the traditional thick, tangy, tomato-based kind; a vinegar-based sauce that’s a staple of North Carolina barbecue; and a distinctive mayonnaise- based white sauce associated with northern Alabama. Head is the first of many to point out that barbecue sauce can accentuate the flavor of pork or beef, but is best left up to customers to add as they see fit.

Dixie Bones’ customers include locals and vacationers from throughout the U.S., Head said. “The whole country knows about Southern barbecue. The whole country’s not enjoyed it. We’ve had numbers of people who stop and say, ‘Oh, this is what it’s about. This is really good,’” he said.

LipSmacking Sauces
Then we mosey across I-95 (carefully, mind you) to Famous Dave’s on Prince William Parkway at a location convenient to weary highway travelers. Opened in 2000, the restaurant in Woodbridge is one of 190 Famous Dave’s eateries in 34 states, making it the country’s largest barbecue franchise.

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“It’s kind of like people [who]brew their own beer; there’s a million ways to do it,” said Paul Niemeier, general manager of Famous Dave’s in Woodbridge.

And, yes, Dave is real. He’s Dave Anderson, a Choctaw and Obijwa (Chippewa) Native American who once headed the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and opened his first namesake restaurant in Wisconsin in 1994. He’s also an author and motivational speaker. The chain’s website describes him as “a living and breathing barbecue encyclopedia.” Anderson is credited with creating the lip-smacking sauces that Famous Dave’s uses and sells.
At the chain’s Woodbridge location, baby backs and spareribs are big business, and the restaurant’s largest smoker can accommodate more than 200 racks at a time, said General Manager Paul Niemeier. About barbecue’s universal appeal, he said, “It’s something that people customize and create their own flavors. … It’s kind of like people [who]brew their own beer; there’s a million ways to do it.”

Rotisserie Hickory Smoked BBQ for All Tastes
Our next “pit stop” is Virginia Barbeque, on Liberia Avenue in Manassas. The eatery opened in 2006. CEO Rick Ivey, a former executive chef at several universities around the state, started his first restaurant in a century-old house in Ashland in 2000 and has since grown the franchise to 10 locations, including eight in Virginia and one each in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Pork “Boston butts”—which come from the shoulder, by the way—are rotisserie smoked for 12 hours with hickory wood. Then the pork is pulled into hearty sandwiches with traditional homemade sweet sauce for Virginians, and vinegar and spices for our Southern neighbors because, as Virginia Barbeque’s website jokingly claims, “Folks down in North Carolina would never put none of that red stuff on no BBQ.”

“Barbecue is classic Southern Americana,” Ivey said. “Its smoky, salty flavor and aroma appeal to all our taste buds.” He also provides insight into its uniquely American evolution. “The secret to its appeal is it uses … cuts of meat that were normally given to the workers. Just as in other cultures, the true working class finds ways to prepare excellent dishes with what is indigenous and affordable.”

Combining Georgia and North Carolina Favorites
Our pickup then travels north, and we park beside a car with the “EAT QUE” license plate, which belongs to Martha Morris. She and her husband Ben run Absolute BBQ on Old Centreville Road in Manassas. The restaurant’s a little off the beaten path, in the Yorkshire neighborhood, but its log cabin exterior and red roof are unmistakable.

Absolute BBQ previously won rave reviews as Ben’s Whole Hog Barbecue, and, sure enough, the renamed eatery still regularly cooks whole hogs over live coals in ovens that Ben designed. He’s a native Georgian, she’s a North Carolinian. So it was a match made in barbecue heaven.

The restaurant, which is only open Thursday through Saturday, features a lunch buffet and live music on weekends. Ben and the other chefs tend to the pork, brisket and chicken while Martha prepares many of the traditional sides, such as potato salad, coleslaw, corn salad and collard greens.

“I find that women will call me when they want to have a party at home, and they don’t want their husbands to have to do all the cooking in the backyard,” she said. Adding that barbecue is lean, freshly cooked meat, she said, “It’s convenient, it’s quality food, and it’s nice to have occasionally.”

Occasionally? Opps, no one told this tour guide that!

Absolute BBQ co-owner Martha Morris stands next to the ovens where whole hogs are often cooked. Her husband, restaurant co-owner Ben Morris, designed the ovens.

Absolute BBQ co-owner Martha Morris stands next to the ovens where whole hogs are often cooked. Her husband, restaurant co-owner Ben Morris, designed the ovens.

Barbecues, crowds and hot days go hand in hand. Staff at all four restaurants said that roughly a quarter of their business comes from catering parties, big and small. Birthdays, wedding rehearsals and graduations are popular occasions, as well as larger “topping-out” parties (such as when a construction crew finishes a project).

Near the restaurant, Dixie Bones has a separate building for food preparation and catering services. Famous Dave’s caters a pre- game buffet for “Ultimate Fan Zone” members at Washington Redskins games and also operates a concession stand at Jiffy Lube Live events. Virginia Barbeque provides the yearly grub for 1,500 or more attending the Friends of the Rappahannock annual Riverfest, held in September at Farley Vale Farm in Fredericksburg.

Flavorful Rubs and Seasonings
Before throwing ribs on the grill, many barbecue enthusiasts apply a rub of various herbs, spices and sugars which form a crust when slow-cooked and complement the flavor of the meat. Manassas’s Dizzy Pig Barbecue Company has made this niche  its own.

Dizzy Pig customizes and markets more than a dozen varieties of fresh rubs and seasonings online and in hundreds of specialty stores nationwide. Rubs include “Dizzy Dust,” “Cow Lick” and “Swamp Venom,” each designed to enhance specific meats, seafood, even vegetables. “What we do better than anybody else is flavors,” said Dizzy Pig President Chris Capell. “As long as we stick to that, I think we’re going to grow and succeed.”

He and his 11-person staff operate a small store tucked into a business park on Virginia Meadows Drive. They are devoted to the art and science of barbecuing, from cookbooks and unique sauces to the Big Green Egg® cookers that the company uses and endorses. “Pretty much all of us here have a lot of barbecue cooking skills, so we sell the stuff we like to use,” Capell said.

For more than a decade, he’s also headed the “Dizzy Pig Barbecue Team,” which travels to blind-judged competitions around the country and has taken home numerous “Grand Champion” trophies, he said.

Have Barbecue, Will Travel
Sometimes your surname naturally leads you into a particular line of work. For Ray Bacon of Bacon’s BBQ, barbecue came calling for him despite his growing up in a South Carolina family whose religion did not allow eating pork.

He runs a property renovation company during the week and is a volunteer firefighter in Stafford County, but on weekends his red-painted food truck can be found along Route 28 in Manassas. He barbecues next to his truck on a metal smoker he built himself. His long-time associate Richard Curley also maintains Bacon’s BBQ business, by the same name, at Bacon’s original roadside location, the entrance to English Country Gardens nursery on Route 234 in Manassas.

Bacon’s BBQ owner Ray Bacon with his meat smoker, “Big Sexy,” which he constructed.  Photo courtesy Tamar Wilsher

Bacon’s BBQ owner Ray Bacon with his meat smoker, “Big Sexy,” which he constructed.
Photo courtesy Tamar Wilsher

“Use all-natural ingredients, use the best products you can, and people keep coming for it,” Bacon advised, adding that he didn’t want to be “married” to a restaurant. He later mused, “If your name’s Bacon and you can’t cook, there’s something definitely wrong with you.”

While Bacon flipped ribs, Gainesville resident and recent San Antonio transplant Diana Cuenca stopped by for a family dinner. “The brisket’s awesome,” she said after a sample. “It takes me home.”

Several other local barbecue entrepreneurs could be found in Dumfries on a sunny Saturday afternoon in May, for the town’s second annual “barbecue battle” during its Multicultural Festival. Jeremiah Burns, Derrick Wood and Frank Zirkle, along with their crews, were engaged in side-by-side friendly competition while tending their pits and feeding the hungry crowd.

Burns, a retired master gunnery sergeant from Kansas City, has catered for years to Marines in and around Quantico. Wood is a Dumfries town councilman who ran for office in part to amend the town’s vendor license laws, to aid roadside and catering businesses such as his own, he said. Zirkle is a retired insurance agent from Manassas who operates his food truck on Route 234 near Lake Jackson and designed his own smoker.

These entrepreneurs, like others mentioned herein, are following dreams and finding joy in creating what Capell called “ambrosia… It opens your mind to what can really happen with a simple piece of meat.”

And as for this tour guide, set him down before a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw on top, a handful of hush puppies and plenty of sweet iced tea, and he’ll be as happy as a pig in mud.

Peter Lineberry, a Prince William Living copy editor since November 2011, admits to gaining a few pounds while “researching” this story. He lives in Dale City and can be reached at plineberry@princewilliamliving.com.

The following grilling safety tips are brought to you by the Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue:

  1. Gas and charcoal grills should only be used outside.
  2. NEVER leave the grill unattended.
  3. Keep grills away from siding and deck railings and out from under eaves. Leave a 15-foot clearance above your grill.

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