The barbecuers come out as the summer comes on. Not content merely to cook their meat and eat it, they spout theories, defend dogma, spread rumors and call names. In this town, where many people cling to their pasts in other places, barbecue brawls can grow heated. Some haggle over what makes a proper sauce and how and when to apply it, whether to sprinkle hickory chips over what kind of coals, what sort of kettle to use if a pit's not possible, how to prepare the meat, when to turn it and with what. Each prophet, convinced of his surpassing rectitude, rolls his eyes and shakes his head.
"The secret to good barbecue," confided Burney Judkins, a native of Portsmouth, Virginia, "is double-dunking. You submerge your ribs in your sauce, throw 'em back on the grill, then dunk 'em again. Also, you got to wear your apron. Very important. Lets everybody know who's in charge. Most of this," he added, "I copied from my Uncle C.J."
Judkins, 24, was cooking for a score of family and friends the other day at Hains Point, where smoke billowed up from countless grills to the accompaniment of volleyball and blasting music -- the whole scene enveloped in bewildering smells. He lifted his barbecue lid to reveal a sizzling mountain of chicken and ribs; he pronged things about and too quickly shut the hatch. "Come back in half an hour," he told some passersby who gaped and hovered impolitely, "and you might get a taste." It was all they could do not to swoon.
"Americans," Calvin Trillin has written, "argue not just about whose barbecue is second-best but even about what barbecue is. In the Southwest, for instance, people ordinarily barbecue ribs, but in North Carolina the word is used as a noun refering only to chopped pork that has been flavored, in a manner of speaking, with a vinegar-based sauce. It is normal for regional loyalists to be both chauvinistic and arcane when talking about the local version."
Hereabouts, there's chauvinism to spare, and plenty that seems arcane. That's to be expected from a place that yearly consumes some 15,000 tons -- or 30 million bags -- of charcoal, according to Irv Fleishman of Shurefire Products, the area's leading supplier. It's also, as Arthur Seeds of the Barbecue Industries Association says, "an excellent area for barbecuing."
So people tinker with store-bought sauce, invest in fancy grills, pre-cook their chicken and parboil their ribs. "People," chuckled Grover Price, a North Carolina native, "do all kinds of silly things."
"I wouldn't even think of cooking indoors unless it was raining," said Mark Carluzzi, owner of the American Cafe, who's grappled with some of barbecuing's subtlest issues.
"I've never had an argument with anybody, but I have seen fights about steak," he said. "The main argument is whether to put on salt or pepper beforehand, and whether to turn the meat a lot or just once. The only thing I'd say is that you should never turn meat with a fork. Use tongs. Otherwise, you put holes in it, and the juice runs out."
In Washington, meanwhile, barbecuers don't live by food alone. "It's just a good way to get people together so they just can talk," said computer company representative Bill Sanderson, a Georgian who likes to lobby over open fires. "We never talk business. It's just casual eating, but it's serious-type casual eating."
Business consultant Larry Meyers, of the Texas Panhandle, also stokes the coals -- and cooks with a dash of politics. "A barbecue should be an event," he said. "The smoke and fire makes the atmosphere, but it's very important that you do it correctly. For instance, mesquite wood is the best thing to cook meat over. You can't get it here, so occasionlly I'll have boxes of it shipped up from a fella in Brownwood, named Groner Pitts. He fits his name pretty well."
Meyers also has a secret sauce. "The recipe's never been written down and it's never been revealed. Frankly, I'd rather show you my tax returns."
As usual, refugees from Texas and North Carolina, where barbecue's worlds apart, are making their share of sparks. Jim Lofton, aide to a Republican congressman from North Carolina, put it this way: "You dig a pit and cook a pig. You cook it for 18 hours or more, with hickory wood and so forth. That's the way you make good barbecue. In Texas, they just have a bunch of meat with hot ketchup on it. That's not barbecue."
Larry King, the noted Texan and author, has other ideas, however. He once visited an old army buddy in a small town in North Carolina. They went to a restaurant and ordered the barbecue special.
"They brought it," King recalled, "and it was a bunch o' little chopped-up s---, y'know. I had to choke that crap down and brag on't to my ol' company commander. Gawd only knows what it was; it wasn't barbecue, I know that.
"Barbecue is sliced and thick and has a sauce," he said. "We may not know much, but we do know that."
Then there's Grover Price, manager of the F Street Flower Shop when he's not staging barbecues for a raft of paying customers.
"I grew up in Tarboro, North Carolina. You probably never heard of Tarboro. There's a kind of barbecuing that's peculiar to that part of the state. Pig-pickin' is the catch-name: choppin' the pig up.
"It's a funny thing -- I was brought up lookin' forward to the barbecue. It was more a summer ritual than just something good to eat; it was a really festive thing. My grandfather -- I called him 'Father,' I guess because I called my father 'Daddy' -- would cook. He'd start in the evening and cook the pig all night long. I'd hang around and watch him. He'd developed a sauce of vinegar and spices, mainly red pepper, plus a few spices that he could find growing in the area. In other words, we used what we had.
"I can't teach people how to do it," he said. "You just have to know."
"Barbecuing," Arthur Seeds said, "started way back with the establishment of mankind on earth. In the United States, it's a predominantly a male ritual. Possibly there's something primal about barbecuing -- maybe like hunting."
But, Seeds said, "The country we believe to be the most advanced in barbecuing isn't the United States at all. It's Australia."
Jane Sullivan, a press officer in the Australian Embassy, confirmed this, adding that the pastime even extends to drive-ins. "It's so hot and humid, it's really impossible to sit in a car," she said. "So people park their cars with the back facing the screen and have a barbecue while they're watching the movie."
Out in the bush, she said, the typical Australian barbecue proceeds as follows: Everybody shows up with mass quantities of steak, eggs, sausage, lamb and, on special occasions, a whole cow, but always with beer. The beer is stocked chock-a-block in portable refridgerators called Eskies -- often, she said, "in absolutely huge Eskies." The men drink beer, dig a pit, collect eucalyptus and gum branches for firewood, drink more beer, and throw on the branches with twigs and leaves. The women, meanwhile, hang back, slicing up bread, tomotoes and onions, and drinking beer.
The men set the fire. The fire immediately dies. Swigging beer, the men discuss what to do. Their decision is always the same: douse the pit with gasoline. This is liberally done, and the fire roars.
Then everybody stands vigil around the fire, drinking beer. Passersby stop to watch. "Have a beer, mate," they are urged. Before long, the barbecue swells to four times its original size.
"We don't worry too much about things like sauce," Sullivan said. "Australians are more likely to go on about what beer was being drunk. Anyway, people are usually too hungry and too thirsty to pay much attention. A lot of times they don't even know what they're eating."
Phil Harrison, another embassy staffer, said that another feature of Aus' Meytralian barbecues is the Australian bushfly. "You have to brush them off the meat. They taste pretty good, though. But if you go to a formal barbecue in the national capital of Canberra, where I'm from, you'll very likely get your own can of anti-insect spray as you come in the door. There's a lot of spraying goes on."
Kevin Hammer, the embassy's agricultural counselor, has been to several American barbecues, including, he said, "a North Carolina pig-picking that was quite outstanding." He added, "I understand that Texans like to barbecue a bullock's head and spoon the brains out. I think I read it in Giant or Big Country or some book like that."
Larry Meyers was silent a while when told of that report. "That just shows you how much those jumpers know about beef," he said finally. "As far as I know, they don't even have feed lots down there; they just eat kangaroos. So I wouldn't rely on Australians for barbecue advice."
At Hains Point, Burney Judkins was peering under his barbecue lid as the passersby returned. "Oh, you're back," he said, trying to hide his surprise with a wan smile. "Well, you're right on time, because I think it's almost ready." They waited amid a smoke cloud, watery-mouthed and weak-kneed, and somewhat ashamedly kicking the dirt.
Finally Judkins grabbed some tongs and pulled two substantial ribs and a meaty chicken wing out of the fire. He dropped them on paper plates and, as promised, handed them over. There was a flurry of munching and smacking noises as the visitors wolfed them down.
"That," said one, sauce dribbling from his chin as he sucked several fingers at once, "was excellent." GRILLING IN THE PARK
You don't have to have your own back yard to cook in the great outdoors. You usually need your own grill, though, and someone willing to get out early to stake a claim on a spot. Setting up a grill is permitted in most suburban parks, and here are some Washington parks where barbecuing's allowed on a first-come, first-served basis: Rock Creek, East Potomac, Hains Point, Glover-Archbold, Dumbarton Oaks, Fort Reno, Montrose, Barnard Hill, Fort Mahan, Battery Kimble, Fort Totten, Fort Slocum, Fort Bunker Hill. Some parks have reserved-only areas; check first before setting up. You should also clean up afterward and leave no embers. Call the National Park Service at 426-6720 or the D.C. Department of Recreation at 673-7646 for details.