It’s your average day in Auburn, with four lanes of steady traffic zipping north and south along Center Street. You know the familiar landmarks and where the lights are sticky. Despite the rush, maybe you’ve seen the little log cabin in the Republic Jewelry & Collectibles parking lot with picnic tables and a small grove of hibiscus trees in front. Is it a “tiny house” prototype?
Backwoods BBQ & Grill owner Tom Cerulli laughs and says he’s had a number of offers for the hibiscus trees since he opened on July 3. One woman mistook his semi-permanent food stand for a tree sale and was upset when Tom told her she could buy barbecue but not the hibiscus trees.
People! Slow on down or you’ll miss the North Carolina-style barbecue!
Cerulli, an entrepreneur and former corporate executive, has dabbled in the restaurant business for the last 15 years. He’s owned this current barbecue stand for 10 years and ran it in two other Maine locations as well as running a barbecue restaurant in his home state of New Jersey. He says, “I got tired of working a corporate job, the cabin was sitting in my driveway and I said ‘That’s it, I’m reopening it.’”
What motorists might not see from the road is the large rotisserie smoker in back of the cabin. “It can handle up to 1,200 pounds of meat,” Cerulli says “and this unit’s size lends itself to pork.” That’s partly why Backwoods BBQ serves North Carolina-style barbecue — ‘que for you aficionados out there. Pulled pork, a favorite in North Carolina, is the Backwoods BBQ specialty and a customer favorite. The menu also includes ribs (baby back or St. Louis style), chicken and brisket.
The cabin, like a deluxe upta-camp kitchen on wheels, also has a grill, an oven, refrigeration and warming tables. But the real action is in the pit. The BBQ pit, that is.
Authentic barbecue cooking involves many hours of slow cooking to infuse the meat with its distinctive smoky taste. Pit smokers are made of heavy steel, to handle the carefully modulated temperatures and long cooking times. Hardwoods are preferred for this, and Cerulli uses apple wood from South Hill Orchard in Buckfield. “We’re smoking meat today for tomorrow’s sandwiches,” he says.
Besides imparting flavor to his fare through the cooking and smoking process, Cerulli makes a homemade barbecue sauce to accompany the menu items. It’s a tomato-based sauce in the Lexington style (see BBQ&A), and it also finds its way into the baked beans, which have become a popular signature dish that Cerulli sells by the pint and the quart. Other available sides are coleslaw and daily-made fresh cornbread.
If you’re not a ‘que person, you can get a grilled half-pound hamburger, and even a “Ripper.” A “Ripper?”
Cerulli, with an ever-so-slight accent in spite of his years in Maine, serves deep-fried hot dogs just like they make them at Clifton, New Jersey’s “Rutt’s Hut.” The hot dogs are deep fried until they burst open (or “rip”) and are then served with your choice of sides.
Even though Backwoods BBQ & Grill has only been open for about two months, Cerulli says “the reception has been very good. We’ve had a lot of repeat customers.” Because it’s a small operation, he says, “it’s easy to keep the food fresh and keep customers happy.”
Maybe you can’t buy a hibiscus tree at Backwoods BBQ & Grill. But its North Carolina-style barbecue is available 7 days a week, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., for both take-out and picnic-style eating. They offer pickup style catering too.
Julie-Ann Baumer lives, cooks, gardens and writes from her home in Lisbon Falls. Read her blog www.julieannbaumer.com or follow her on twitter @aunttomato.
Backwoods BBQ & Grill
200 Center St., Auburn
(A short primer on barbecue in the U.S.)
Believe it or not, Christopher “Hot Sauce” Columbus may have discovered barbecue or “barbacoa” on the island of Hispaniola when he found indigenous people cooking meat over indirect flames. That’s one theory anyway. Later Spanish explorers brought the cooking method with them as they worked their way up the Mississippi River.
The pig as a food staple in the Southeast increased barbecue’s viability. Pigs will eat anything, making them more low maintenance than a cow. Farmers could let them run wild to root in the woods and then round them up when other food supplies ran low. These wild hogs, tougher and leaner than today’s pampered pigs, would be slow-cooked over a smoking barbecue. The length of cooking and the smoke would make tough meat more edible and every part of the animal was consumed.
With that, the barbecue tradition was born and has continued to this day.
The four “major” regional styles of barbecue are Memphis, North Carolina, Kansas City and Texas. Memphis barbecue is primarily pork with a tomato and vinegar sauce. North Carolina generally smokes the whole hog in a vinegar-based sauce. Kansas City ‘que is primarily ribs with dry rubs, and Texas barbecue is big on beef. But like Russian nesting dolls, each region has regions with regions, offering subtle differences. North Carolina barbecue includes the Lexington-style barbecue, using a sweeter, milder tomato sauce over smokier meat (like the offerings at Backwoods BBQ & Grill in Auburn).
Other regional styles include Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Maryland, Kentucky, and Chicago. If you want to leave the country on a barbecue quest, you could travel the world and ‘que up in Korea, Portugal and a number of South American countries.
Barbecue, like Elvis, is everywhere.
American sauces are distinctive and part of each region’s barbecue tradition. East Carolina’s vinegar, pepper and chili pepper sauce uses very little sugar and is used to baste the meat while cooking. In western North Carolina (Lexington style), the sauce is similar to the state’s eastern vinegar sauce, but includes tomato products to sweeten it. It’s used more as a “dip” than a baste. Kansas City barbecue sauce is thick and sweet and quite common. Check your grocery store shelves and see for yourself. Memphis sauce is similar to Kansas City style, but uses molasses as a sweetener. Then there’s the South Carolina mustard sauce, made with yellow mustard, vinegar, sugar and spices. Texas barbecue sauces are spicy with very little tomato and almost no sugar. Often, meat drippings are used in the sauce. And let’s not forget Alabama’s white sauce, which is a mayonnaise and vinegar dressing best used for dunking and dipping.
Most Southeastern barbecue is dominated by pork — which part of the pig and how it’s served depends on the region. In Texas, it’s all about the beef, baby. Ribs, briskets, shoulders . . . your hanging weight may vary after such a feast. Then there is chicken, sausage and even the occasional lamb ‘que — again, depending on region.