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."
Our next stop was Woody's Smoke Shack in Des Moines, Iowa. That's right, we went to corn country to find barbecue.
Talk about fiercely loyal customers, several hundred people had written to us about Woody's, a single barbecue restaurant in a small brick building in a residential neighborhood between Drake University's campus and downtown.
It's owned and run by Woody Wasson and his wife, Cheryl. They first got into the barbecue business when Woody left the construction trade about 10 years and began peddling his barbecue at competitions and fairs around the state. From there, they started a small take-out and catering business.
In 2002, they opened the restaurant. Wasson said business is booming even in the face of the national economic recession.
Unlike Cousin's, Woody's uses a dry rub -- some cayenne pepper, black pepper, cumin, chili pepper ("There's probably one or two spices you don't know," Wasson said vaguely). There's no ketchup or other liquids, unless you count a dollop of honey. He then wraps his ribs in cellophane and aluminum foil and then cooks them in his outdoor pit for several hours.
The Wassons take a lot of pride, too, in their side dishes, which include a wonderful corn bread, cheese grits, greens, baked beans, cooked apple and cole slaw.
"When Woody puts his touches on this great Iowa beef and pork, it just melts in your mouth," gushed Russ Gibson, one of the small army of people who e-mailed us about Woody's.
"I mean, it's good enough to make you cry," he cried.
The third stop in our final four barbecue tour was Archibald's BBQ in Northport, Ala., a small town near Tuscaloosa, Ala., home of the University of Alabama.
Even before you spot it, in the backyard of a small brick house in a residential area, you smell the aroma of hickory smoke and ribs.
It reminded me of Leo's in L.A. Smell can trigger vivid and powerful emotional memories. To me, it smelled like home.
Archibald's is your classic down-home Southern African-American barbecue shack. It's a small, squat block building painted white with red trim in honor of the Crimson Tide of the University of Alabama, proprietor George Archibald said. There's a counter inside with no more than half a dozen stools set in front of it. There are four or five tables set up outside under parasols. The air was thick with smoke and flies hoping for an opportunity to alight on the food.
I was struck by the racially mixed clientele that poured steadily into Archibald's. Young black people, older black people, young whites, older whites.
Inside, Archibald, who looked to be in his 60s, tended the barbecue pit and, along with his daughter, served one heaping plate of ribs after another, mostly to take-out customers.
I looked around. There was no menu posted. It turns out there is no menu. You have a choice of pulled pork sandwich or pork ribs. With either, you get white bread and a plastic container of the pungent sauce. An extra hot sauce will set you back 50 cents.
Archibald's parents, George, Sr. and Betty, opened in 1962. That same year, Alabama elected arch-segregationist George Wallace as governor.
George Archibald Jr. started cooking when he was 14 and eventually took over running the business from his aging parents, both of whom are now dead.
His technique for making ribs is quite simple. He starts the fire in the pit each morning using hickory wood. Then he comes inside and starts laying slabs of ribs -- no rub on his -- and tossing them onto the grill.
When they're ready -- Archibald decides that by visual inspection and some judicious prodding with a fork -- he pulls them out and serves them up on a square of wax paper over a paper plate.
The sauce is key. It's what really brings out the barbecue's subtle meaty flavor. His is a milky yellowish color and it's vinegar-based. Beyond that, Archibald won't say much.
"It's been a secret all these years, we'd rather keep it a secret," he said.
I asked him what distinguishes his barbecue from that made with dry rubs or served with ketchup-based sauces.
"Well, mine has got a little more swing to it," Archibald said with a smile that suggested both humility and pride. "Swing. That's what I put in it, ketchup-based, I guess that's all right. But I will stick with my vinegar."
Sitting at the counter, customer Dallas Richey said, "To me, it's one of the best in town. I live across town and I come here just to get some barbecue. And I pass two or three other barbecue places getting over here."
That is effusive praise in barbecue-loving Alabama.
The last of our four finalists was Dinosaur Bar-B-Cue in Syracuse, N.Y.
The Northeast is not normally known for its high quality barbecue, but "The Dinosaur," as its fans affectionately call it, has a large and vehement following in upstate New York. It also has an unusual history.
Owner John Stage discovered barbecue more than 25 years ago mostly by accident. At the time, he was a biker, as in motorcyclist not bicyclist. He and his pals spent their time riding the roads and attending biker rallies, but the food served at the events was disgusting, so he and two friends decided they could do better, sell it and make money.
"We could never get good food so we decided to get into the business of feeding bikers," he said.
They started off grilling hamburgers and hot dogs, which they called barbecue. One day, a rider from the South explained that burgers and hot dogs aren't barbecue.
Stage was baffled. What was barbecue?
Eventually, he traveled to the South and discovered what barbecue really is. He went from place to place, sampling the barbecue and asking questions and eventually selling his own, cooked over a 55-gallon oil drum cut in half.
In 1988, Stage and his two partners opened Dinosaur. After a struggling beginning, it took off. It still draws a large biker crowd, along with a cross-section of college students, middle-aged and elderly customers and people in business attire.
Today, there are also Dinosaur restaurants in Manhattan and Rochester, N.Y.
"Here's the secret of barbecue," Stage said. "There is no secret. It's spice. It's meat and it's sauce."
And, he explained, it's knowing when the cooking barbecue is ready to "give up the ghost" -- the exact moment when it is transformed into great barbecue.
The executive chef of the Dinosaur chain is Jeff "Cooter" Coon, a large, tough-looking man with massive arms festooned with tattoos.
Appearances deceive. Coon is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and used to prepare French haute cuisine at a nearby country club. He kept coming to Dinosaur to eat and finally asked for a job.
"Barbecue is a lot more fun," he said. "And a lot more thinking. And a little more hard work. With all due respect to my French comrades out there, I just like the love and the affection and the understanding of the product and how it's going to react under a low flame. Slow and low. When you're cooking something over a 12-to-14-hour time period, it takes a lot of understanding and know-how of what you're doing."
Stage said there is an art to making barbecue, and you never stop trying to perfect it.
"Hey, man, I'm still learning," he said. "I swear to God, with barbecue, you never stop learning."