Mike McQuade on Southern Barbecue

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Barbecue with a Southern flavor
Jackie Crosby ~ Star Tribune
Thursday, August 24, 2000

Country Roads

Mike McQuade Sugar Mike teaches barbecue wisdom, and his method includes the use of "magic, witchcraft and alchemy."

ELKINS, W. VA. -- If there's one thing Mike McQuade knows, it is barbecue. Slow cooked, fall-off-the-bone tender, Southern-style barbecue.

"This ain't for sissies," McQuade likes to say about the barbecue experience. And he's right.

Doing justice to the art of barbecue cooking requires patience, dedication and, for McQuade at least, an acknowledgment of the "magic, witchcraft and alchemy" that can turn an inexpensive, tough piece of meat into a mouthwatering delight in a mere ... 12 hours.

This July, I was one of five students, from ages 16 to 57, learning McQuade's brand of barbecue wisdom at a weeklong class at the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis and Elkins College.

As a Southerner living in the Midwest, I was eager to learn the secrets of making the barbecue I grew up with, but couldn't imagine what McQuade would talk about for five whole days. Far as I knew, you bought the meat, put sauce on it, threw it on the grill and ate it hours later. Wrong.

McQuade filled our days and nights with handouts, folk tales and heady advice. From historical lectures on barbecue's roots as food for people of modest means, to handouts on food safety, to discussions on nuances among sauces (see recipes that follow) to the importance of welcoming vegetarians to the barbecue table, McQuade's deep appreciation of the craft was ever-present.

"You can barbecue anything if you understand the fundamentals of slowly cooking the meat, managing moisture and managing the seasonings," he said.

"I'll allude to Duke Ellington, who said there's only two kinds of music: good and bad. Well, you can add rubs, sauces, washes, spices and injections to meat, but if you don't cook it right, it doesn't matter what you put on it. It's still going to be bad meat."

McQuade, 57, grew up in rural northern Ohio and didn't eat much barbecue when he was young. He credits his grandmother and what he calls her rustic cooking with sparking his interest in traditional American cooking.

"I had an appreciation for the social ritual of food," McQuade said. "And Southern barbecue is a social ritual in cultures that can slow down to that pace of cooking. I always say you don't have to worry about Yankees taking over barbecue because they can't imagine spending a whole day stoking a fire."

His fascination with barbecue -- cooking it, eating it, learning about its culture and history -- began about eight years ago after 25 years as an attorney for the State Department in Washington, D.C., and in Bonn, Germany. Now retired, "Sugar Mike," as he is called by longtime barbecue and musician friends, is a certified barbecue judge with the "Memphis in May" and the Kansas City Barbecue Society sanctioning bodies.

In the classroom

Work began in our outdoor classroom around 9 a.m. and we often didn't enjoy the fruits of our labor until 8 p.m. or later. We cooked racks of ribs, whole chickens, a Texas-style beef brisket and pork shoulders. We created dry spice rubs and, midweek, we worked a 12-hour day in a driving rain to present enough barbecue for a late-night snack for 250 students attending other craft, music and dance workshops on campus.

McQuade brought along half a dozen barbecue cookers (priced from $25 to $800), and taught us how to work with the common back-yard grill as well as the Cadillac of cookers to get delicious meat.

"I know what championship barbecue is like and I try to get championship flavor out of the equipment you can get at the hardware store," McQuade said.

"Can you barbecue on a Weber? Yes, but you'll work twice as hard. You have to learn how to bully the thing."

Barbecue basics

Whether you consider yourself a barbecue connoisseur, a weekend warrior or an occasional dabbler at the grill, the basics of good barbecue -- McQuade style -- are heat, flavor, smoke and moisture.

Here's a primer:

Heat: McQuade puts thermometers on all his cookers -- including Webers. Aficionados say "barbecue happens" when the temperature in the cooker ranges from 200 to 250 degrees. McQuade shoots to keep his constant at 225.

To be in the "safe zone" for avoiding food-borne illnesses, red meat and poultry should have an internal temperature of 160 to 170 degrees. The ideal pork shoulder barbecue is cooked for eight to 12 hours and the temperature in the cooker should register just above boiling, which is 212 degrees.

Flavor: The first day, we made "naked" ribs and chicken -- no seasoning -- and were amazed at how tender and tasty the meat was after cooking slowly at low temperatures for eight hours. Of course, most back-yard chefs prefer using dry rubs, sauces and marinades to create their own signature tastes.

McQuade, thankfully a nonpurist, encouraged us to use commercial barbecue sauce or dry seasonings as a base to creating our own flavorings, as many of these products use cooking ingredients and procedures that would take hours to make in the kitchen.

To reduce heaviness: Add cider vinegar or orange juice.

To add sweetness: Use sugar, honey, molasses, catsup or sherry.

For a more sour taste: Add vinegar or lemon juice.

To add spice: Put in some yellow mustard, onion, garlic or cloves.

McQuade suggests going easy on marinades or rubs with hot sauces and peppers, as the heat intensifies during the barbecue process. Instead, use hot spices in dipping sauce and serve with the cooked meat.

Smoke: If you can't cook over an open fire, add hardwood chunks to hot coals to infuse the meat or chicken with barbecue's signature smoky flavor. McQuade soaks his chunks in water before adding them to the fire. They can be placed in the cooker after as little as 10 minutes, but don't soak them for more than two hours.

Moisture: How to get moist, not soggy, barbecue? McQuade places a shallow pan with about an inch of water or other liquid off to one side or under the meat to generate steam. Once the cooking starts, he opens the lid only when it's necessary to add heat. Even then, the lid is opened only enough to add fuel.

McQuade suggests keeping vents on the top of grills closed. For example, when cooking on a Weber kettle he leaves the top vent closed to hold in the moisture and places a small stick at the seam of the lid and the base to allow the fire to continue to be able to breathe. Injections and marinades are other ways to ensure that the meat retains a high moisture level.

Low-cost BBQ

McQuade proved you don't need to invest a lot of money in a grill to get great barbecue. But you do need time, patience and a dab of creativity.

"A lot of this is mystique creating," McQuade said. "You may want to go home and put some raspberry and brown sugar in a glaze. All of it is legitimate and within the tradition, as long as you don't go over the top. Put your personal print on it. If it's good and your friends like it, that's barbecue."

Class information

The Augusta Heritage Center operates out of Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, W. Va. The Southern Barbecue Cooking class is in its second year there. Tuition is $345. Optional on-campus room and board: $265.

The nonprofit center's mission is to research, document, promote and nurture traditional folk life. Educational programs and events are held year-round, but the five weeks of summer workshops on dance, music and crafts draw students of all ages from around the world.

For more information: Augusta Heritage Center, 100 Campus Dr.; Elkins, W VA 26241-3996. Phone: 1-304-637-1209;
e-mail: augusta@augustaheritage.com;
on the Web: http://www.augustaheritage.com.

Barbecue terminology, according to "Sugar Mike" McQuade: Barbacoa: Commonly believed to be the linguistic origin of the term barbecue. A modern-day Spanish language word, it was originally an American Indian term for open-fire meat cooking.

Barbe-a-queue: Another possible origin of the word, particularly by those who credit the pirates of the Caribbean with creating this style of cooking. It is a French expression loosely meaning, "from the whiskers to the tail" and describing the practice of cooking up the whole beast.

Barbecue: Any food cooked over an open fire. Includes slowly cooking meat by applying smoke, heat and seasonings.

Correct BBQ terminology: "They ain't none, Bubba!" says McQuade. There's an infinite array of variation, depending on personalities and regions of the country.

"Wisdom lies in the direction of learning to sit, spit, sip and assimilate with the jargon of another barbecue practitioner," McQuade says. "Madness, or worse, lies in the direction of arguing over barbecue jargon."

© Copyright 2000 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.
(As reported in the Star Tribune)
Dedicated to (with permission from) Mike McQuade.

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Barbecue Sauce Recipes
King Sauce
Eastern Carolina
Memphis-Style
Low-Country Mustard
Delta Common

"Sugar Mike" McQuade's unique sauce was inspired by the house sauce at King's BBQ in Petersburg, Va. "Southside" Virginia sauces are known for having lots of vinegar, celery seed and mustard with just a hint of tomato -- a variation on neighboring eastern and central North Carolina sauces.

McQuade uses this sauce to dress barbecue pork shoulder and whole chicken. After the meat has been pulled, he sprinkles on a small amount of this sauce and tosses the meat as he does a salad. Also serve it as a dipping sauce on the table.
  • ½ gallon cider vinegar
  • 2 (12-oz.) cans of tomato juice
  • ½ c. prepared yellow mustard
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 to 2 tbsp. celery seed
  • ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper

In a large, stainless steel pan, mix together all the ingredients. Bring to a gentle boil and continue for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently with a wire whisk. Turn down to a simmer. Cook uncovered, stirring periodically, for 2½ to 3 hours until reduced by two-thirds. (McQuade uses a slotted spoon as a depth gauge.) Let cool and store in a glass container.
Makes 4 cups.
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Eastern Carolina Barbecue Sauce


Carolina-style refers to sauces common in North and South Carolina, which are heavy on vinegar and light on (or devoid of) tomato. In this region, barbecue pork is pulled from the bone, chopped or minced, and then heated in a pot with its sauce. The meat is commonly served on a bun with a side dish of slaw. Makes 2 cups. This recipe is from "Barbecued Ribs, Smoked Butts and Other Great Feeds" by Jeanne Voltz.
  • 1 pint cider vinegar
  • 2 tbsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. ground red pepper
  • 1 tbsp. red pepper flake
  • 2 tbsp. firmly packed brown sugar

Combine vinegar, salt, ground red pepper and flakes, and brown sugar. Mix well. Let stand several hours before using.
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Memphis-Style Barbecue Sauce


Memphis sauce typically is tomato-based, but less sweet and vegetable-tasting than Kansas City sauces. This recipe, from "Championship Barbecue Sauces" by the self-styled "Baron of Barbecue," Paul Kirk, is a classic: ketchup, mustard, brown sugar, vinegar and spices. The pepper, chili powder and Tabasco make this sauce a lively one. Makes about 5 cups.
  • 1 (32-oz.) bottle ketchup
  • 1 c. brown sugar, packed
  • ½ c. prepared yellow mustard
  • ½ c. cider vinegar
  • ¼ c. chili powder
  • 2 tbsp. liquid smoke
  • 1 tbsp. black pepper
  • 1 tbsp. Worchestershire sauce
  • 1 tbsp. garlic salt
  • 2 tsp. Tabasco sauce
  • 1 tsp. celery salt

Combine all the ingredients in a nonreactive saucepan and blend well. Place the mixture over medium heat and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
This sauce will keep for several weeks in an airtight jar in the refrigerator. Use this sauce warm or chilled as a finishing sauce for pork of any kind. It is especially tasty on a pulled pork sandwich.
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Low Country Mustard Barbecue Sauce


This version of traditional non-tomato barbecue sauce is prevalent along the coast from southern North Carolina to Savannah, Ga. The basic recipe can be enhanced by adding a splash of hot sauce and by using different types of vinegar (white or cider), mustard (yellow, brown, Dijon, etc.) or by substituting molasses for honey. Makes about 1½ cups.
  • ½ c. prepared mustard
  • ½ c. honey
  • ¼ c. light brown sugar
  • ¼ c. distilled white or cider vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Combine mustard, honey, sugar and vinegar in a nonreactive saucepan and whisk to mix. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook uncovered for about 5 minutes, whisking occasionally, until flavors blend.
Remove from heat and season with salt and freshley ground pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature. Sauce will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks.
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Delta Common Barbecue Sauce


This is a simple recipe that offers hints of a Memphis-or Mississippi-style sauce. Although nothing like the sauces of eastern North Carolina, Memphis sauces still show their vinegar roots. This sauce is thick and rich. Makes 2 cups.
  • 1 c. onion, diced
  • ¼ c. butter
  • 2 c. ketchup
  • 1 tbsp. Worchestershire sauce
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ¼ c. vinegar
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • ½ c. dark brown sugar
  • Tabasco sauce to taste

Saute onions in butter until translucent. Add ketchup, Worchestershire, salt, vinegar, black pepper, brown sugar and Tabasco. Continue stirring and bring to a boil. Serve hot.



Republished with permission of Star Tribune, Minneapolis-St. Paul.
No further republication or redistribution is permitted
without the written consent of Star Tribune."
Story and Mike McQuade photo by Jackie Crosby
Thursday, August 24, 2000

Edited by Mike McQuade


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BBQ Cookin

Cooking Class
William Michael McQuade, a.k.a. "Sugar" Mike

Passed away on Tuesday, October 20, 2003, at the age of 59. Stalwart husband, devoted father, dutiful son; world traveler, blues musician, soldier, artisan, woodcarver, barbecue chef, author, first Dan black belt of the Soryu Kai. Survived by two sons, Brendan and Thadd, and wife Jayne McQuade. A man with a true love of life; it is hard to believe there was still anything he hadn't done. Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan; died in Arlington, Virginia.
"Nothing is impossible to a valiant heart."


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