BARBECUE IS quintessentially American. Its roots disappear in the shadows of the unwritten culinary history of Africa and the Caribbean -- with some others veering off in the direction of spit roasting as it was done in Southern Europe and North Africa. Like many of our best native preparations, barbecue is less complex than it seems. Quality meat, careful seasoning and slow cooking are what one finds close to the bone.

Sadly, there isn't much time or patience for slow cooking anymore. Health, fire and ventilation regulations have effectively doused the flames of classic, wood-fired "pits" in most cities. Quality meat is available, but careless palates are ready prey for the artificial flavors of badly seasoned, almost flavorless pork or beef that is stewed and/or broiled instead of baked. Microwaves reheat meat cooked long before but are incapable of restoring its juices. Sauces are inexcusably over-sweetened or come with all the flaws of a badly concocted salad dressing and a prayer that hot pepper sauce will act as a magic cure-all.

If the situation seems bleak, it is. Calvin Trillin, who attempts to digest America and record it in The New Yorker, has made his life a good deal less complicated by worshiping at a single shrine -- Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, fountain of (to him) the One True Barbecue Sauce. While bottles of Bryant's pepper-laden lava have been detected coming off airplanes arriving from the West, most barbecue fanciers have to deal with realities closer to home.

Within a 50-mile radius, you'll find the remarkable sliced pork barbecue at Allman's on Rte. 1 in Fredericksburg and a few places where Carolina-style chopped or minced barbecue is not dishonored. Barbecued ribs in the classic style are as hard to find as mastodon teeth. Nonetheless, we tried. If it was difficult to find well-prepared ribs, it was even harder to find a good sauce; perhaps no two people are capable of agreeing on the proper texture and taste of a good sauce.