Nine innings, with sauce

Not long ago, I attended a friend’s backyard barbecue. It wasn’t real barbecue, mind you—which is defined by the excruciatingly slow process of exposing meat to low heat and controlled smoke over a prolonged period of time—but grilling, which requires infinitely less patience and skill. It still tasted good, but it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as if it had been the real thing.

Much has been made of the profound difference between the two. Grilling, it turns out, is for saps and amateurs, and barbecue is for true believers. The process of slow cooking and using indirect heat via special chambers—the willingness to fuss over a steady temperature of 250 degrees for more than three hours—why, it’s the difference between like and love, Rosaline and Juliet, Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard.

But preparation is only half the contrast. The more profound difference is in the eating. Eating grilled food is a neat little affair. You cut up your grilled specimen with a knife and fork or put it inside a bun and dab some aioli on it. There’s little mess. In the end, you feel healthy and pleased with yourself.

Real barbecue is a different matter. The tradition of real barbecue is to pile on so much meat that you hear your paper plate groan. It is to go where no one can see you tearing flesh with your teeth, silently communing with your carnivorous ancestors. It is to black out at the end—dirty napkins strewn around your head, and rib bones piled high nearby, stripped of their meat. It is to have the smell linger on your fingers hours after you’ve licked them clean.

That is the difference between grilling and barbecue. And really, it is the difference between barbecue and all other kinds of eating. Because of these extenuating circumstances, a few rules apply.

Rule No. 1: You must never eat barbecue on a nine-to-five job.

Rule No. 2: You must never eat barbecue on a first date if you have any hope of having a relationship.

Rule No. 3: You must never eat barbecue near any vegetarians you know, lest they pass out from the sheer horror.

Where you can eat barbecue, without exception, is at a River Cats game at Raley Field. Foul Tip BBQ, behind left field, offers the honest-to-goodness real kind. You can tell by the trailer-hitch smoker that sits to the side of the stand.

Getting there is not easy. Temptation hounds you from the moment you enter the gate all the way to left field: hot dogs, polish sausage, pizza, burritos, garlic fries, hamburgers—you name it. Pay no attention to these foods. They are the Rosalines and Clay Aikens of the ballpark. They will distract you from your true love.

Go all the way until you see James Murphy, the large man in the white apron. He’s the man who gets the smoker going with about 250 pounds of red meat. He watches over that meat, making sure it’s happy inside its 250-degree house for about three hours. Then, it’s chow time.

A full plate of chicken or tri-tip, or a combination of the two, will run you $10. It comes with potato salad, beans and cornbread. Sandwiches (tri-tip or chicken breast) run $6, with extra sides going for $1.50.

Wanting to try some of everything, we went for the combo plates, which held an obscene amount of tri-tip, a large chicken leg (regrettably, not slow-cooked in the smoker), a mound of creamy-looking red potato salad, a helping of beans and two helpings of cornbread. We fast-walked over to the grass behind left field, a perfectly obscured venue for gorging.

The potato salad was top-notch. Red potato cubes held their form, cooked to perfect firmness. Egg, olive, onion and celery added contrasting flavor and texture to the potatoes. All coexisted in a perfect creamy matrix that was light and flavorful. The beans were a standard affair—sweet and tangy, with liquid that served as a second dip in addition to the pumped-out barbecue sauce.

Lean, tender and smoky, the tri-tip tore easily in the hands and with the teeth. The thinnest line of fat added yet more flavor to each piece. In comparison, the moist chicken leg lacked the seductive smoky flavor of the tri-tip. It was left uneaten, as was the dry cornbread—both deemed superfluous in the face of so much meat.

So much meat. There must have been eight or nine slices of the tri-tip alone. I went and asked Murphy, “Why so much?” Said he, with a hint of a smile, “It’s really not so much once you start eating it.” Spoken like a true barbecue-tarian, I thought, as I walked back to the grass behind left field and drifted blissfully off to sleep.