I know barbecue. My parents were from the South. When I was growing up in Los Angeles, my mother often made barbecued spare ribs for dinner. We were frequent patrons of Leo's Bar-B-Q Pit, which I remember as always enveloped in a thick white cloud of aromatic smoke and one of the best barbecue joints I've ever been to.
Over the years, I have had some excellent barbecue and some pretty good barbecue. I've had mediocre barbecue and more than my share of bad barbecue. Be assured, I did not embark without considerable qualification and experience upon "Good Morning America Weekend Edition's" quest to find America's best barbecue.
In April, "GMA Weekend" asked viewers to send us the names of their favorite barbecue purveyors and tell us what made theirs special. Admittedly, this was somewhat less than scientific as far as polling methodology.
Nonetheless, we received more than 1,000 e-mails. From that, we winnowed the field to four, based on the number of submissions, the eloquence with which people described their favorite barbecue, our desire for regional representation and to get a good balance of different styles of making barbecue.
It wasn't easy but, in the end, we settled on a quartet of barbecue restaurants that we felt confident were among the best in the country.
Then, I hit the road to test drive the barbecue, so to speak.
To assure that competition fair -- apples to apples -- we told each establishment we -- that is, I -- would be sampling their barbecue ribs. No beef, no chicken.
The first on the list was Cousin's in Fort Worth, Texas, a chain of six restaurants. We went to the one on Bryant Irvin Road, a wide thoroughfare lined mostly with gas stations and franchise restaurants. The restaurant was spacious and wood-paneled.
"I think Cousin's is the best in America," said Calvin "Boots" Payne, who opened his first restaurant in 1983. "I've eaten at a lot of barbecue joints. There are a lot of good ones out there, but we've got it all ... quality of meat, we mix all our own rub, all-wood-burning pit, all hickory wood."
Why the name Cousin's?
"It's easy to remember," Payne said. "Everybody's got a cousin -- just about."
Back in the kitchen, I met Boots' son, Cliff Payne, who is the chain's "pit master." His job is to check the quality of the daily supply of beef, chicken and pork, to make sure the sauce is properly prepared and that the ribs are cooked just right.
He showed me how they mix their rub. It contains ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and an assortment of spices including, naturally, chili powder (they get theirs from California).
The rub is then massaged onto the sides of ribs just before they're placed on a grill inside the barbecue pit, where they smoke for hours over a fire made of hickory wood.
They also make their own barbecue sauce -- a subject about which Cliff Payne, a barbecue purist, is a little touchy. He thinks his barbecue doesn't really need any sauce.
"Some sauces overwhelm the product," he said. "All you taste is the sauce. This recipe was developed to complement the spice we used on the meat."
At lunchtime on a Monday, Cousin's was hopping. Being Texas, the restaurant has a fiercely loyal following.
Melissa Peacock said, "If it was my last day on Earth, I would come here and eat the barbecue before I went to heaven."