Why BBQ? What drew you to standing outside in the heat taking in face-fulls of smoke for hours on end?
The reason I got started in it is because my dad did it. And he “required,” which is a polite word for he “made” my brother and I help him cook all those years when he was barbecuing. But his dad did the same for him, and his dad did the same for him. And at the time, when I was learning all this — well, I didn’t realize I was learning, but — as I got older, it seemed like a rite of passage, a heritage thing for the Nixon family. And that’s really what got me started in it.
My mother and father came up with the sauces that I use and we started doing this to promote those sauces, so it’s all around about family. That’s why barbecue really is the backbone of this country. When barbecue really started out in the 1700s, 1800s, people that did this didn’t do it wanting to be world-renowned pitmasters. There wasn’t anything like that around. They wanted to feed large families, cheaply, with what they had. They had woods where they could get the wood to burn to make coals. They had livestock on the farm, and the cows and the pigs to barbecue, and they had large families that they had to feed. Because these large families at that period of time were a labor pool. They got out in the fields, they did labor. So it’s about family. It’s about living.
BBQ is obviously iconic Southern fare, so as we gear up for the Big Apple BBQ here in New York, do you have any advice for the proper enjoyment of Q for us Yanks?
I think barbecue has become the trendy food, not just in New York, but nationwide. And I think all things Southern right now are really sought after. You know, people are really caught up in the Southern flare, the Southern-type atmosphere, that, whether it’s all true or not, what they may envision the Southern culture does. But with that being said, I think barbecue is going to move forward up here, not just because it’s trendy, but because it’s great food.
And you have so many options up here in New York City now to choose from, and every year there’s another one or two restaurants coming. And all of them have their strong points. I mean right around from Blue Smoke which is done by Danny Meyer, to Hill Country to Rub to Dinosaur, you have Daisy May. The people in New York City are very lucky to have this smorgasbord of barbecue. I know some places below the Mason-Dixon that don’t have that quality of barbecue around.
You’re a highly decorated competitive BBQer. What award or designation has meant the most to you and why?
Well, I’m a three-time barbecue world champion, and you know those accolades are very high. And I’ve won over 219 total grand champions to date but probably — well, ain’t no probably to it — the one that means the most to me? There’s a contest in my hometown of Vienna, Georgia, 140 teams, that’s been going on since 1982. And I won that contest the year after my daddy passed away in 1996. And that win, that particular win right there, means more to me than anything else I’ve ever won. So I did that in front of my hometown, in front of my mother, in front of my family. And that by far stands head and shoulders above anything else.
Every region fiercely protects its BBQ traditions. What BBQ customs are indigenous to Georgia, where you’re from, and do you stand strictly by them or do you feel like you can borrow from other regions to produce that prize-winning whole hog BBQ?
Well, barbecue in Georgia is a lot like the Carolinas, in the form of the pigs have always been roasted, where you do direct heat shoveling coals beneath them. You get that crispy skin. It’s a very vinegar-based region for our sauces. We’re using a mop, or a marinade where you’re mopping along as it goes. The vinegar is very prevalent. As far as rubs, nothing much more than salt and pepper and maybe a little paprika in there for some color. And that really describes the region traditionally.
Now me being a competitor, I compete all over the country. I go to different regions and [there are] different flavor profiles everywhere you go, so I have to borrow from other things. I no longer cook direct now. I do a class where we do what we call a Barbecue Memories class, where we cook on replicas of my dad’s pits. But as far as what I do in everyday competitions or in restaurants, we’ve gone to some high technology type smoking, where we’re using water pans. I cook with peach wood now, as opposed to what my dad cooked with, which was red oak and hickory. I think a lot of the flavor profiles now, to be able to reach the masses, you’re having them get a little sweeter than the vinegar-based sauces that I was raised up using. The rubs have gotten a lot more exotic and flamboyant in the fact they’ve got a lot more things involved in them besides salt and pepper. Some of my sauces or rubs have honey powder in them, I’ve got maple powder in some of them, we’ve got dried basil in some of these. It’s just the taste buds of our public have changed a lot. And just because now you’re in Georgia doesn’t necessarily mean that the vinegar-based sauces and stuff are prevalent or predominant there now.
Because, like New York, Atlanta became a melting pot. So I think you’re getting a blend of things now. I think the regionality of barbecue isn’t as prevalent as it once was. I think you’re getting some hybrids off of that, which is a good thing, I think, because I believe you need to keep it simple, but things change. You know, things change and evolve and things generally evolve for the best. And as long as we stay somewhere in line with true barbecue, I think it’s always going to be good. But for things to get better, I believe you’ve really got to have change. You’ve got to have some vision about what you’re trying to achieve. To me, the barbecue world right now is in one of the best places it’s ever been.
So you’re in support of the evolution of the tradition, which is great.
Exactly. I mean, don’t forget where you came from. That’s a fact. I told you I teach a class and it’s about barbecue memories, and I teach 15 people about the way things were done. And that’s great to learn that and know that, and I think it makes you a stronger barbecue person and stronger cook in general to know those things. But with that being said, it’s not just in barbecue, with any form of cooking, whether it’s French food or Pastry or whatever you’re doing, things always evolve, and I think they generally evolve for the best.
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