America, Land of Outdoor Cooking

ONE thing you can't get in Washington or Kennebunkport is a plate of pork ribs from Otto's Bar-B-Q. That's why George Bush gets his fill when he pops into Houston. "He usually has a side of beans," says manager June Sofka, whose Czech in-laws founded the 39-year-old joint.

Read "the barbecue president's" lip-smack: Meat cooked over a fire tastes good. And Americans know it: Last year they cooked outdoors a record 2.3 billion times. The smoky savor of hickory or mesquite will perfume 3 out of 4 backyards between Memorial Day and Labor Day. And the feasting doesn't necessarily end then. Half of those who own a grill use it year-round.

What is meant by "barbecue," though, depends on whose mitten grips the tongs, says Ann Spehar, the Barbecue Industry Association's executive director. Some chefs say it's any hastily flame-broiled thing - animal, vegetable, or hot dog. Others limit it to beef or pork smoked over indirect heat for the better part of a day, and in a "pit" rather than on a mere grill.

Sensible folks need only ask, "How do they do it in Texas?" When it comes to barbecue, the Lone Star State's reputation for greatness rests on numerous highly individual emporia: The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Luling City Market in Houston, almost anyplace in Taylor.

Which wood adds the best flavor? Should you apply tomato-based sauce, molasses-based sauce, or none at all? There are no right answers, only preferences.

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