When it’s lunch time at the Smokey Pig barbeque restaurant in Bowling Green, be prepared to wait in line. This place opens at 10:30 a.m., and within an hour on a recent Tuesday, almost every table was taken and every seat claimed. I came to the Smokey Pig today to meet with a man who claims to be afflicted with something he calls H.E.B.D--Hyper Enthusiastic Barbeque Disorder.
Wes Berry, the self-diagnosed victim of H.E.B.D is also a Ph.D-holding Professor of English at WKU. And he has just authored a book—not about fine literature or poetry—but about his true passion: barbeque. And more specifically, the kinds of barbeque one can find in the Bluegrass State.
The Kentucky Barbeque Book is Berry’s love letter to his favorite food and state. The Barren County native says he’s eaten at 168 barbeque restaurants, joints, shacks, festivals, and Catholic church picnics in the commonwealth.
All in the name of good research, of course.
Barbeque: Monroe County Style
The Smokey Pig is the place Wes and I have chosen to talk about Bluegrass State barbeque. I follow Wes’s lead regarding what I order. They say “when in Rome”, and when it comes to barbeque, Wes Berry is Caesar.
We order the pork shoulder plate, double-dipped. And that is where my barbeque education began. It turns out that in world of ‘cue, “shoulder” means different things to different people. In the south-central Kentucky region, a shoulder plate means you’re getting thinly sliced pieces of Boston butt grilled over coals. “Dipped” means the pork has been coated with spicy barbeque dip.
The Smokey Pig serves its barbeque Monroe County-style. So what distinguishes Monroe-County style barbeque sauce from other sauces?
“The Monroe County sauce is about the most distinctive thing going in Kentucky barbeque,” says Berry. “The basic sauce is lard, butter, vinegar, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and salt. People tweak it in different ways.”
The recipe for home cooks Wes provides in his book calls for two cups of lard and four sticks of butter—you know, just to provide a little balance for the spicy ingredients.
The Origins of a BBQ Fanatic
Wes Berry set out on the Kentucky barbeque odyssey that formed the backbone of his book in the summer of 2009. But in reality, the genesis of the book came from his childhood in Barren County, and a love of barbeque that developed around his Uncle Roy.
“He was a barbeque maniac,” Wes recalls. “He was always doing it. So I’d go over and he’d give me a paper grocery sack and he would tell my cousin Andy and me to go gather a bunch of poke for poke salad. So we’d gather poke in the springtime and he’d cook up a whole mess of poke greens. He’d tell us to hall in firewood. And every time we came back he’d give us something off the pit as a treat.”
“So my passions for ‘cue go back to childhood.”
Different Regions, Different Specialties
The barbeque Wes Berry was raised on was Monroe County style—lots of pork shoulder and spicy vinegar dip. In his book, Berry shows a map of Kentucky’s different barbeque regions. The Monroe County style is dominant in the south-central region, including the counties of Monroe, Allen, Barren, Cumberland, and Warren.
The region of Christian, Daviess, Henderson, Hopkins, and Union counties is where you’ll often find mutton—sheep barbeque smoked over hickory wood. You’ll probably also encounter burgoo, sometime Wes describes as an “everything but the kitchen sink” stew made with an assortment of meats and vegetables.
Wes says Kentucky barbeque is distinctive because of its versatility. You can find just about everything in the commonwealth if you’re willing to look.
“In the western part of the state, the main tradition is pulled pork, or chopped pork, from whole shoulders or Boston butts smoked over hickory coals for a really long time,” Wes says. “In Owensboro, mutton is king, but you can also find places that serve good pork ribs, good chopped pork, and some places that serve good brisket.”
“Louisville is a hodge-podge of a barbeque town. They have a lot of good beef places there. But there are places in Louisville where you can get good lamb ribs, for instance, and smoked pork belly—some of that hoity toity high-end barbeque.”
“And in Monroe County you have this very distinctive sliced shoulder tradition that you can find in Monroe and about four other surrounding counties.”
Owensboro’s International Bar-B-Q Festival
Wes says the Owensboro-Daviess County area deserves a lot of credit for marketing itself as one of the world’s barbeque capitals. Every May, the city hosts the International Bar-B-Q Festival.
For Wes, the best part of this international festival is something intensely local—the many cooking teams that get together to create a scene along Owensboro’s riverfront that Wes describes in his book as an “optimistic vision of hell”.
“They have these teams that compete. They all cook mutton, and chicken, and they block the streets off and build these huge pits. And they basically cook a whole lot of meat over a 24 hour period, and they sell it for charity.”
“Most of these teams are teams from Catholic churches—people that have been cooking together for over 30 years. Like St. Mary’s of the Woods cooking team, or Our Lady of Lourdes cooking team.”
“So every year in May they get together and they smoke up thousands and thousands of pounds of meat for a good cause.”
The People Behind the Barbeque
I mention to Wes that I noticed how much he talked in his book about not just the barbeque, but the people who create the barbeque we enjoy. All of that goodness doesn’t just magically appear on your plate at noon, after all. Somebody’s probably been up a really long time getting things prepared.
“Without fail, these people are passionate about what they do,” says Wes. “There are people out there who are cooking while using old-fashioned methods. One of the favorite people, Cy Quarles in Grand Rivers, Kentucky, at a place called Mr. BBQ.”
"He cooks a whole pork shoulder for 24 hours at around 200 degrees, maybe a little bit lower. He’s burning down hickory wood to coals and shoveling those coals underneath the meat periodically, around every hour or so, to keep a steady temperature.”
“I said to him, ‘Mr. Quarles, when do you sleep?’. And he said, ‘Well, I didn’t use to sleep until I got a guy to help me.’”
So Who’s #1?
I’ve had a great time eating and talking barbeque with Wes Berry. But now it’s time for a serious question.
It’s the question you have to know you’re going to get when you write something called The Kentucky Barbeque Book.
Who has the best ‘cue in Kentucky, Wes Berry?
“There is no single best barbeque place in Kentucky”, he insists. “Anytime you’re talking about food, people have individual preferences, and there’s such a range of barbeque styles.”
“When you read the book, you can tell the places that I’m really enthusiastic about.”
“So there’s no #1 place, but there are some places that do everything well, and when you read the book you’ll know them, because I don’t hold back. My enthusiasm just pours out on to the page.”
Wes Berry is a Barren County native, proud Kentuckian, WKU English Professor, and the author of The Kentucky Barbeque Book.