Barbecue is my ultimate comfort food.

It's the food I most associate with my parents, who seem to have had barbecue in their genes. Family reunions centered around barbecues: My mother's uncle hosted the annual Harper family gathering and led the crew that stayed up all night to cook a whole pig in a pit.

My father and his brother began frequenting Jackson, Ga.,'s Fresh Air Bar-B-Que not long after it opened in 1929. My Uncle Cliff plotted his hunting and fishing trips around visits to Fresh Air, and in his later years a trip to Fresh Air was my ailing daddy's favorite outing. We children gathered there after his funeral.

When I was growing up, barbecue was the special treat on those rare occasions when our family of six didn't eat at home. Now I think it's in my genes.

And to me, real barbecue places should look like Fresh Air: a low-slung, unpainted wooden building, large stacks of wood outside, a sweet/acrid hickory aroma you can smell before you round the last curve, a parking lot that is as much sand as gravel, long communal tables with ladder-back chairs and those yellow-colored pest strips hanging from the ceiling. And, of course, a wooden screen door.

You don't go to Fresh Air for anything but barbecue, served either as a sandwich or a platter, with a paper cup of Brunswick stew and a paper cup of coleslaw, plus some slices of white bread. The pork is slow-cooked over hickory and oak, then pulled and chopped into small chunks that are anointed with a thin and spicy sauce prepared daily on an electric range that must be at least 30 years old.

I used to order T-shirts from Fresh Air, but wouldn't wear them for months -- until their delicious smell of barbecue had abated.

Although some people call it barbecuing when they cook anything over a fire on an outdoor grill, purists will argue that barbecue is meat that is cooked by smoke, rather than fire, at temperatures a little over 200 degrees. Long, slow cooking keeps the meat tender.

There is much disagreement about the origin of the word barbecue. Some contend it's from the French and originally referred to cooking every part of the pig, from the beard (barbe) to the tail (queue). Others claim it has Spanish origins; still others say it came from the American Indians.

And while we're on terminology, technically a rack of ribs comes from the upper part of the hog's back and a slab of ribs comes from the belly. Some places call them racks, others call them slabs, but I make no promises that individual barbecue places are using the correct terms.

There are many regional differences in styles of barbecue and in the sauces used. In much of the South, the emphasis is on pork. Texas tends to favor beef. And there are almost as many sauces as there are people who cook barbecue.

The Washington region doesn't seem to have a single style, embracing the sweet barbecue sauces of Georgia and southern Virginia, the fiery ones of eastern Carolina, the smoky sauces of Kansas City, the tomato-chili concoctions of Texas and everything in between.

There aren't many open pits around these days; the preferred method at most restaurants involves commercial stainless steel smokers that mix gas or electric heat with wood or wood charcoal. Some people would say that's not real barbecue, but they turn out some very good-tasting meat.

In a three-week marathon of barbecue eating across the Washington area -- an exercise that has included my husband, coworkers, friends and friends of friends -- I didn't find the ultimate barbecue experience. I didn't discover a Fresh Air or an Archibald's (an Alabama rib shack where I had the very best barbecue of my life). But I came across some pretty good substitutes, some of them longtime area favorites and a few of them very accomplished new kids on the block.Those in the area that I think are especially worth seeking out are designated in this list by the pig at left.

A final note: Hours vary immensely. Some places are open only for lunch, others only for dinner. Some operate on weekdays, others weekends. Many close on Sunday. And many don't take credit cards. So call before you go.

But go, and enjoy!