Wes Berry's goal was to eat at every barbecue place in Kentucky and write a travel guide. After hitting the road, he realized that describing smoked meats and sauces dozens of times began to sound like a broken record. So he changed the focus of the book and wrote the stories of the people who smoke the meats and concoct the sauces.
Berry, an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, wrote The Kentucky Barbecue Book (The University Press of Kentucky, $27.95) "to rectify a wrong." It's being released next week.
"Kentucky — while famous for bourbon, horses and Colonel Sanders — has been long neglected by the people who write about food and travel, when it comes to barbecue," he said. "I wanted to spread the good word that pitmasters in our lovely state produce some of the best smoked meats you can get. Moreover, I wanted an excuse to hit the highways and meet the people and taste the grub."
Berry sampled barbecue at 167 joints and festivals (111 are in the book), and his taste buds were never happier.
"I'm here to tell you that Kentucky has some really fine barbecue," he said. "I've discovered that many establishments, especially in the western part of the state, still cook old style, shoveling hot hardwood coals under meats elevated on grates inside cinder-block pits. Fat drips down onto the ashes and coals, and sizzles back up into the meat, creating that special barbecue taste that smoke alone can't make."
So, what's the best barbecue in the state?
"People ask me time and again, 'Who's the best?' I could probably give you a Top 20 list, but then I'd agonize over number 21, which nearly made the cut," he said.
Near the end of his book, he includes a subjective list of superlatives, a kind of "greatest hits" of his barbecue travels, titled "Wes's Great Kentucky Barbecue Feast: Favorite Dishes from My Travels."
When Berry started to write the book, he considered a rating system similar to the one used by the authors of Real Barbecue, a scale of "good," "real good" and "as good as I've ever had."
"I intentionally left off a rating system because I want you to read about these places and decide for yourself where you'd like to visit," Berry said. "I think you'll know when a place is awesome from the words I use to describe it."
When people ask Berry to name the best, he often says it depends on what kind of meat you want, because few places do everything at an excellent level.
"I might rate the half chicken at a particular restaurant as outstanding, for instance, but find the pulled pork too dry or lacking the smokiness I prefer," he said. "Or maybe a restaurant does stellar smoked meats but serves food-service potato salad and slaw. There are a few dear places that impressed me across the board, with quality smoky meats, fresh-tasting homemade sides and good hospitality. You'll know these when you read about them. I don't try to temper my enthusiasm for these mom-and-pop barbecue wonderlands."
Berry had eaten plenty of barbecue before he began this quest and thought he knew what he liked. He was a fan of thin-sliced pork shoulder grilled on an open pit over hickory coals and basted with a vinegar-pepper dip.
Also, "I knew I liked deeply smoked, tender, sliced beef brisket from my Texas travels," he said. "I loved dry-rubbed ribs, having eaten them in Memphis while living nearby in north Mississippi. I knew that thick, sweet sauces weren't my thing and that my palate preferred meats without much sauce, especially if seasoned and smoked well.
"A vinegary, peppery sauce was my preference. I also thought that cooking over gas was inferior to cooking in traditional ways over wood coals or, second best, manufactured charcoal."
Berry grew up in Barren County, in the south-central part of the state, not far north of the Tennessee line. The barbecue style of his youth revolved mostly around what locals call "shoulder:" oval slices of pork, bone in, cooked on an open pit over hickory coals and sopped with a dip of vinegar, butter, lard, black and cayenne pepper, and salt, closer to an eastern North Carolina sauce than what you'll find in Western Kentucky.
"Even though I cut my barbecue teeth on thin-sliced, vinegary pork shoulder grilled over hickory coals, my palate has always been open to trying new foods, and therefore I've been delighted by barbecue styles from far southwest Texas to Kansas City to middle Georgia," he said. "And I've eaten at least some decent stuff up near Chicago, although most of what I've had from that region depends too much upon thick sauce and not enough on long smoke."
Berry's reverence for open-pit grilled sliced shoulder has declined somewhat since he has eaten the long-smoked, closed-pit pork shoulders of Western Kentucky. And tasting the best of pork (tender, moist and deeply smoked) from Prince Pit BBQ, Grogan's, Mr. BBQ and More, Leigh's, and Knockum Hill has set the bar high and made him more critical of other pulled and shredded pork styles, he said.
Although Berry favors a vinegary, hot sauce, he also likes the "complex melon sauce" served at J.J. McBrewster's in Lexington or the sweet Hawaiian sauce at Big Kahuna in Leitchfield.
And he's a fan of mutton.
"Smoky, tender mutton marries well with the tangy black dip sauces you'll find at the four Owensboro barbecue places and at Western Kentucky Catholic church picnics," he said. "There's nothing else like this flavor in the barbecue kingdom, and it's rare to find outside a few counties in Western Kentucky."
Berry's book is divided by regions of the state: Western Waterlands; Bluegrass, Blues, and Barbecue; Caves, Lakes, and Corvettes; Southern Lakes; Derby; Northern Kentucky River; Bluegrass; and Appalachian.
In the western counties, Berry said, the preferred barbecue is pulled or chopped pork from whole pork shoulders or Boston butts, but mutton is the west's most distinctive claim to barbecue fame. As for Louisville and Lexington, Berry said, he hasn't detected any distinctive style linking the barbecue places or their environs.
"They seem to be melting pots of barbecue styles, serving Texas brisket, Memphis-style-dry-rubbed ribs, and Western Kentucky-style pork and mutton," he said.
In the Bluegrass region, Berry includes: Staxx BBQ in Frankfort; Tony's Barn, Lawrenceburg; Dunn's BBQ & Catering, Harrodsburg; Fat Boys BBQ, Georgetown; Billy's Bar-B-Q, Ky. Butt Rubb'in BBQ, J.J. McBrewster's, Mary Lou's BBQ, Wagon Bones Grill, Red State Barbecue and Sarah's Corner Café BBQ, all in Lexington; and BC's Backwoods BBQ and Gridiron BarBQ in Richmond.
Videos of Berry's travels are at WBKO.com/golocal.