Keep It Simple!
aka Remus Powers
BBQ Hall of Famer
All photos courtesy of Ardie Davis
“I don’t need a fancy barbecue pit. I just stack some cement blocks yea-high in an open-ended rectangle and top it with a scrap metal grate. When the coals are hot and the ribs are on, I hood it with my wheelbarrow, add more wood as needed, and smoke ‘em till they’re done. Best danged barbecue you’ll ever eat!”
Recollection from a casual barbecue chat with a stranger in Springfield MO, April 17, 2000
Nowadays I wonder if the promise of advanced technology to simplify our lives is really doing just that. By making my iPhone a constant companion that jolts my attention with Amber Alerts, Weather Alerts, Breaking News, text messages and incoming emails, is my life simpler and less complicated than the life of my dear late Aunt Mae who lived in a Missouri Ozarks cabin without electricity or hot and cold running water, well-water pump outside, outhouse, wood-burning stove, galvanized metal wash tub for bath water that was heated on the stove, kerosene lanterns at night until bedtime; no electric fans; no air conditioning? Aunt Mae was happy, resourceful, kind-hearted, a gifted storyteller, and always positive despite carrying more than her fair share of sorrow on stooping shoulders beneath her flowery dresses made of cotton chicken feed sacks.
The choices available to us in today’s barbecue scene cover a full spectrum from lo tech/lo-cost to hi-tech/hi-cost, with a range of options in between. There is no right or wrong as to what option you choose. Your choices reflect your degree of self-awareness and how you calculate rewards versus costs. The best choice for you is the choice you like best.
Paul Kirk and I stopped at Dagwood’s Café recently for breakfast on our way to talk barbecue history, KCBS history, competition
barbecue, rub anatomy, barbecue restaurant operations and barbecue science with Carolyn Wells, Rob Magee and some meat industry scientists at a gathering of American Meat Scientists Association self-described “meatheads” conferencing at Kansas City’s Westin Crown Center. Although I have passed Dagwood’s on Southwest Boulevard many times, this was my first time to eat there.
When we entered, I noticed an aging rectangular plywood sign, painted white, on the wall behind the counter. A smiling freckled cartoon face, sailor hat atop his head, was framed by three all cap words in Gothic sans serif-style red letters: KEEP IT SIMPLE.
Dagwood’s has earned iconic diner status in Kansas City as a breakfast and lunch destination since 1938. With their “Keep It Simple” classic stick-to-your-ribs meats, potatoes, eggs, gravy, biscuits, toast, waffles, pancakes and hot coffee combos, it’s no wonder that Dagwood’s has maintained a steady niche and loyal following over the past 8 decades.
“Keep It Simple” has worked at Dagwood’s for 80 years and counting. For tens of thousands of years and counting, “Keep It Simple” has worked as a pathway to barbecue excellence. If you’re new to barbecue or if you’ve already taken thousands of laps around the pit, you know that there are many overlapping paths to barbecue excellence. Some paths lead to a dead end. Hockey puck burger patties, blackened hot dogs, busted brats, yard bird that’s burned outside/raw inside, shoe leather brisket, mushy ribs, charred butts and other embarrassments go with the learning process. Shortfalls happen, even when we follow the best recipes, the best cookbooks, the best videos, or what we learned from the best barbecue classes. Reaching barbecue excellence is a hands-on adventure enhanced by trial and error experience.
It turns out that the meaning of “simple” is not as easy to define as the “Keep It Simple” motto implies. That is, unless we select the one of 18 Merriam-Webster variations that complement the pursuit of barbecue excellence: “readily understood or performed.” That’s straightforward enough, no BS. 14th century philosopher William of Ockham put it this way: “Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.” In other words, “Keep it Simple.” Ockham’s Razor belongs in every barbecuer’s toolkit.
Today’s major overlapping paths to barbecue excellence are rooted in 3 core traditions, each of which benefits from keeping it simple:
1. Primal – Primal cooks emulate the earliest barbecue methods of cooking fresh meat directly on hot coals, or skewered on a green sapling, or racked on green sapling grids above hardwood flames and coals. Today, metal rods and grates have for the most part replaced green saplings. Earthen ditches filled with hot coals, topped with meat-covered grates for hot pit barbecue were common at large-scale political and community events in 19th century America. Primal-retro “Dirty steaks” cooked directly on hot coals were a fad in the 1950s, rarely practiced today.
2. Modern – In step with the 1930s to 1990s, modern outdoor cooks fire up their custom-built brick pits, ceramic or metal grills, with or without electric powered rotisseries, carousels and/or pellet feeders. Vintage modern era cookbooks abound online, in flea markets, used bookstores and retail bookstore discount bins coast-to-coast.
3. Contemporary – Today’s contemporary cooks, channeling their heritage with thousands of previous generations of barbecue cooks from all over the planet, push forward with new methods, high-quality foods/seasonings, hi-tech cookers, gadgets and equipment, plus tips gleaned from competition barbecue and the evolving “science” of barbecue.
Most barbecue cooks today embody characteristics of all three core barbecue traditions. Pathways to barbecue excellence are simple, but not always easy. Continuous learning, skill sharpening, money, labor, time and passion are required.
Finally, the simplest ingredient, the ingredient that makes it all worthwhile and keeps us coming back, is the people we meet, the enduring friendships we develop, the tips we learn from each other and those treasured moments when our palates shout “Wow!!” with a bite of the best danged barbecue we’ve ever eaten!