It sounds like a setup for a joke: Three Slovenian guys walk into a barbecue joint in Texas…
But the three guys in question, Miki Stjepanovic, Ales Omejc and Peter Hajdu, fell in love with barbecue. It’s no joke how serious Slovenia — a country a quarter of the size of South Carolina that’s nestled between Austria and Croatia — has become about barbecue. The three got certified with the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) and started the Slovenian BBQ Society in 2017. Now they host the Wild West Fest, an annual KCBS barbecue competition and country music festival in Slovenia.
And that’s where the Charleston connection comes in. One of the Holy City’s newest residents just got back from serving as culinary ambassador for the Wild West Fest in Slovenia.
Elizabeth Karmel grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, with the vinegary tang of that state’s pulled pork, but a marketing job traveling with Weber Stephen Products Co., the makers of Weber grills, exposed her to all sorts of regional barbecue styles.
“I discovered grilling is the best way to prepare food, bar none,” she said in a recent interview. “The convection heat of the grill does everything for you. All you have to do is to get the best quality ingredients, use a little bit of olive oil, salt and pepper — and the right outdoor cooking technique to make amazing food.”
With Weber, Karmel started teaching food writers and chefs how to take their indoor cooking game outside.
“I was learning about so much more than North Carolina barbecue. In North Carolina, it’s all about the pig. In Kansas City, they joke, ‘If it moves, we barbecue it.’ And then, in central Texas, because of the German and Mexican influence, they cook a lot of different foods, including sausage which, for a North Carolina girl, was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. But Texas barbecue really is probably the best example of the confluence of all these heritages. The jalapeño cheddar cheese sausage has jalapeños from Mexico, the sausage itself is a German tradition, and the cheddar cheese is what was widely available in the United States. I just love that. I am passionate about barbecue!”
In the way of all things Southern, shortly after Karmel settled in Charleston, a friend of a friend heard about her and invited her to be a culinary ambassador for the U.S. in Slovenia.
In this case, Karmel was recommended to the head of the Culinary Diplomacy Project (CDP), a project formed during the Obama Administration that became a nonprofit when the administration and interest in the project changed. The program works with embassies that want to promote better cross-cultural awareness through food.
The U.S. Embassy in Slovenia was one of the Wild West Fest sponsors and when the CDP was looking for someone to send to Slovenia last month, it seemed like Karmel was the right fit. It was a happy coincidence that the U.S. ambassador to Slovenia lives 100 miles away in Columbia when she’s not in Slovenia.
About the 2022 festival
Wild West Fest, sanctioned by KCBS, brings in teams from far beyond Slovenia. This year’s grand champion was a team from Austria and Karmel handed out trophies, taught classes at the festival and visited Slovenian chefs and food folk.
One of the men she met during the visit raises specialty pigs that roam free and forage for their food. She was able to get him to donate St. Louis cut spare ribs and baby back ribs — two cuts that are apparently rare in Slovenia — for her demonstrations.
“I hosted a Master Class where I taught them to make their own spice rub and then I showed them how to make North Carolina style pulled pork,” she said. “I also showed them my favorite ‘back pocket’ recipe, which is beer can chicken and we had pizza on the grill. Just for fun, I made an Alabama white sauce with a mayonnaise base to go with the chicken, because I knew they would never have tried that.”
One big surprise was seeing a team use the U.S.-made Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce.
“I’d brought my own to show how to do a mop with barbecue sauce and beer,” she said. “It’s the picture of classic American barbecue sauce, but it must be sold outside of the U.S. because someone was using it in the competition.”
Despite the increasing popularity of American barbecue as a hobby in Slovenia, Karmel was able to sample more traditional foods there, too. She said she loved the street food “Burek” — a savory, spiral-shaped pastry with filling — and a cabbage soup called “Jota.” Liver and onions, normally a chore for Americans to eat, was prepared with thinly shaved frozen liver infused with onions, red wine and butter.
Karmel said she planned to make those dishes for herself in Charleston.
“In Slovenia, they cook primarily by hand and by touch rather than using a recipe. But I’m going to try to re-create those dishes at home,” she said. “I am extremely inquisitive. I learned how to make barbecue because I went to the old salts and asked them what they were doing and then tried it on my own. I absorbed it all like a sponge.”
Helen Mitternight is a veteran journalist who is a recent president of the Charleston chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier.
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