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While barbecue-loving Southerners agree that the Northern and British definition of barbecue — a backyard cookout — is borderline heresy, barbecue purists also like to hotly debate what constitutes true barbecue. State by state, and even town by town, no two methods are exactly alike, and “pitmen” defend their craft tooth and nail. Although the styles differ and it is just an unassuming pork product, the slow-cooked Southern pig has become nothing short of a Southern icon. To examine barbecue is to examine its history and traditions. Southerners are proud of our traditions, especially ones centered around food — warm hospitality, strong family ties, a perfectly laid table. There is no better articulation of this than John Egerton’s preface to his famous book on Southern food:

“For as long as there has been a South, and people who think of themselves as Southerners, food has been central to the region’s image, its personality, and its character … Accents and attitudes and life-styles may change, but fondness for Southern food persists; for many people, it lingers in the mind and on the tongue as vividly as the tantalizing aroma of barbecue on the pit hangs in the air and penetrates to the core of thought and remembrance.”
— John Egerton

Allie Wall, who also happens to be my mom, wrote the first barbecue restaurant review book in the country (Hog Heaven, 1979). She traveled 5,000 miles throughout South Carolina, tasting the state’s barbecue. In the preface, she writes, “Some of the best places seem to be tucked away in remote areas only the local people know.” There is a reason for that, I would later learn. As she explored, she “learned about the traditions, techniques and monumental effort involved in the preparation of this renowned Southern treat. I learned from her, and so I am here to offer you a bite from my plate of barbecue knowledge.

Rodney Scott's BBQ

Rodney Scott, a whole-hog expert with eponymous restaurants in Charleston, Birmingham, and soon-to-be Atlanta, seasons some freshly smoked meat. Image: Andrew Cebulka

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THE REQUIREMENTS: MEAT, WOOD AND PATIENCE

The magic spell for delicious barbecue is patience and a precise mixture of time and temperature. While grilling uses high and direct heat for quick cooks, traditional barbecue requires indirect, consistent low heat and longer cook times. This is commonly referred to as a “slow ‘n’ low.”

The first ingredient in the barbecue tradition is the meat. Some say real barbecue must be pork, but you’ll find delicious beef brisket in Texas and mutton-style barbecue in Kentucky. Most Southern barbecue, however, is pork and that backstory is still to come. Meat cuts used for barbecue typically have a higher fat content, which lends tenderization and flavor over a long cook time.

The second key ingredient in barbecue is the wood over which you smoke the meat. Barbecue cooks use different types of wood to achieve a unique flavor. And because different woods impart different flavors, the regional availability of the various woods affects the taste of that region’s barbecue. Hardwoods like hickory, mesquite and oak impart a strong smoke flavor. Maple, pecan, alder and other fruit woods such as apple, cherry and pear lend a milder, sweeter taste.

ALL ABOUT THAT SAUCE

Patience, meat and wood smoke are the only essential ingredients in Southern barbecue. Did you see sauce listed? Nope! So why all the fuss about sauce and seasoning? This is a hotly debated topic and varies widely between regional traditions. Before we dive into the fascinating history of each region’s sauce tendencies, here’s an excerpt from the hilarious “A Beginner’s Guide to All Things Barbecue” by Matt Diffee and Paul Noth:

“Sauce is good but it isn’t essential. A lot of places cover mediocre barbecue with great sauce. That’s like painting hot rod flames on your Prius or putting glitter on your bald spot.”

A FLAVORFUL HISTORY

So how did this slow ‘n’ low process start? It’s a Caribbean cooking style that was brought to the Southeast by Spanish conquistadors. It then moved westward by different European settlers and became seasoned with the flavors of those different cultures. The pig became an omnipresent food staple in the South because it was a low-fuss, convenient and pretty cheap protein source. Pre-Civil War, in fact, Southerners ate, on average, five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef. When money was tight and those pesky cows were taking all the attention and feed, farmers would let the pigs go out and fend for themselves in the woods (pigs are smart like that). When they returned, they were leaner and primed for a slow and low cooking process that could tenderize the relatively tough meat.

In the beginning, every part of the pig was used — the meat was either eaten immediately or cured for later, and the ears, organs and other parts were transformed into various edible delicacies. This “whole-hog” style of cooking started in the Carolinas and Tennessee, and it can still be found in those regions almost exclusively, though fewer and fewer pitmasters and restaurant owners practice the whole-hog style anymore.

A Southern Barbecue by Horace Bradley

“A Southern Barbecue,” a wood engraving from a sketch by Horace Bradley, published in Harper’s Weekly, July 1887. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Moving into the 19th century, church picnics, family gatherings and political rallies centered around barbecue. It was a popular and cheap way to lobby for votes. The organizers would provide the Q, some lemonade and maybe a little whiskey. All different races joined these gatherings. Barbecue was not a class-specific food, and large groups of people from every stratum mingled, ate, drank and listened to the speeches together. In the 20th century, barbecue pits grew and prospered, evolving into three distinct types of barbecue restaurants: Black-owned, upscale urban white, and the white “joints” (that were more like a hole-in-the-wall dive). These racial denotations, however, do not mean that barbecue restaurants catered to a specific clientele. Good barbecue drew (and still draws) barbecue fans of every color and class.

THE BBQ BELT

From these communal roots grew the U.S.’s “barbecue belt” (basically speaking, the entire Southeast), which is now home to four distinct barbecue traditions — Carolina, Texas, Memphis and Kansas City. Each has its own preferences of meat, spice, fuel, and fixin’s. Let’s dive into where these four traditions came from, and how, in a relatively small region of the country, they have evolved in such different ways.

CAROLINA STYLE

The original styles of barbecue are thought to have started in the easternmost colonies, like the vinegar-based “whole-hog” barbecue found in North Carolina. The British colonists started adding sauce to meat (basting it) to preserve the juices within the Caribbean barbecue technique. North Carolina’s vinegar-based sauces still have the aftertaste of the colonists’ penchant for tart sauce. In eastern North Carolina, the meat is chopped or sliced and the sauce is peppery vinegar. West of Raleigh, NC, uses the same cut of meat but douses it in a slightly richer sauce of vinegar and tomatoes.

South Carolina had many French and German immigrants, and mustard had long been integral in both of those countries’ cuisine. You know … Dijon mustard? And, of course, the Germans love their wursts with spicy mustard. With that, South Carolina’s distinct mustard-based sauce was born. In the Columbia to Charleston corridor, you’ll find “Carolina Gold” sauce, made from a mixture of yellow mustard, vinegar, brown sugar and other spices. In much of South Carolina, barbecue is served alongside light bread, coleslaw, and “hash” with rice. Hash is made of stewed organ meats. In this region, the skin of the pig is often removed and fried separately.

Sweatman's BBQ Holly Hill, SC

Allie’s favorite spot for BBQ in South Carolina, and probably in the whole South, is Sweatman’s tucked away in Holly Hill, SC. Since 1959, their process has remained intact: 12-14 hours of whole-hog smoking over hickory, pecan, and oak. Image: Sweatman’s

TEXAS STYLE

From the Carolinas, the barbecue trend moved westward, eventually making it to Texas. German and Czech immigrants in Texas had the land and the feed to cultivate cattle, so they applied these Carolina techniques to beef. Because Texas is just so enormous, Central, South, East and West each have their own set of traits. Central Texas uses oak and pecan wood, while West Texas prefers mesquite. Central Texas barbecue is all about the rub, but East Texas and South Texas barbecue emphasize sauce. West Texas barbecue is usually cooked at a high temperature, and Central Texas barbecue is slowly smoked at low heat. South Texas is famous for its barbacoa, which was introduced by Mexican farmhands near the border. The one thing most Texans can agree on? Brisket is king. You’ve not lived until you’ve tried some truly melt-in-your-mouth Texas brisket.

Spread of food at Pecan Lodge

Here’s a plate from the famous Pecan Lodge in Dallas: Beef rib. Brisket. Pork ribs. Pulled pork. Sausage. And a bunch of sides. Image: Facebook

MEMPHIS STYLE

The term Memphis barbecue encompasses pulled pork and slow-cooked pork ribs. Pork remains the meat of choice, but ribs RULE here. You will see them served “dry” more than in other regions. That means chefs use only a dry rub for flavoring, while “wet” style applies sauce during the whole cooking process. Traditional Memphis-style dry rub is made of salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, sugar and a bunch of other spices. The pulled pork in Memphis is slow-cooked, shredded by hand into succulent threads and typically doused with a sweet tomato sauce flavored with molasses and pepper. Because Memphis is a port city, the original barbecue cooks of the area had a wider repertoire of ingredients from which to create a sauce. Molasses was shipped up-river on the Mississippi and became a popular, accessible seasoning. Memphis is also home to the legendary Memphis in May’s World Champion Barbecue Cooking Contest or the “Superbowl of Swine:” the largest pork barbecue competition in the world.

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A QUICK CHAT WITH CRAIG BLONDIS
Pitmaster and owner, Central BBQ in Memphis, TN

When and why did you get into the BBQ business?

I officially got into the Q business on April 1, 2002. It was an opportunity for me to partner with a friend, Roger Sapp, be self-employed and start making money for myself having had 30 years of hospitality experience. But I was a BBQ lover well before 2002, having competed in many BBQ competitions in Memphis.

How would you classify Central’s style of BBQ? What sets you apart?

Central’s style is a dry-style Q. We rub our meats with our spice blends and let them marinate overnight and slowly smoke our meat to perfection. What sets us apart is our attention to the details and the commitment to using quality ingredients.

Enlighten us as to what Memphis-style BBQ is.

The one thing that defines Memphis-style is the use of hickory. Dry or wet, the one constant is the smoke source. The hickory adds a deep — almost green — element to the meat and, paired with the spice rub, adds an extra layer of flavor to the taste profile.

Will you give us a crash course on your sauces?

Sauce is meant to be an accompaniment, not part of the cooking process. The meat should have a great flavor profile without the sauce if it has been cooked properly. Because BBQ is regional, we have four sauces that cover all regions.

  • Mild sauce, which is a tomato base, semi-sweet sauce from the Memphis and Kansas City region
  • Hot sauce, which is a bourbon and Tabasco base from the Texas region
  • Vinegar sauce, which is a lighter sauce with a little tang from all regions
  • Mustard sauce, which is tangy with a bite from the Carolina region

We encourage our guests to try them all. We like the saying, “You never know till you try.” I like dry-style the best because it really lets the meat shine. You can tell if someone understands the process of slow smoking meat.

Where do you like to get BBQ when you’re on a road trip?

When road tripping, I like to stop at any roadside BBQ joint I can find, like Southern Soul Barbeque on St. Simons Island, GA; B.E. Scott’s in Lexington, TN; and Franklin Barbecue in Austin, TX.

Central barbecue

Craig says that serious BBQ enthusiasts should check out Steven Raichlen’s books on BBQ sauces and rubs. “His book The Barbecue Bible is what started me down the road to Central BBQ.” Looking at this rack of ribs, we are hungry. Image: Central BBQ

KANSAS CITY STYLE

And from Memphis’ barbecue kingdom came the last of our four main styles: Kansas City-style barbecue. In the early 1900s, a Memphis-born man named Henry Perry settled in Kansas City and opened a barbecue restaurant that purportedly originated the city’s particular barbecue style.

TO PULL IT ALL TOGETHER

Like many of the most treasured Southern dishes of our collective childhood, barbecue is not easy to prepare. It requires hours of tending a smoking hot fire and vigilant monitoring of the meat. It truly takes a special person to spend their time consumed in smoke, especially during the dog days of a Southern summer. But the barbecue traditions endure. Despite its inconvenience and difficulty, despite the sea of fast-food restaurants, and perhaps because of the peppered history of so many distinct styles, we still want our barbecue. And as long as the hero “pitmen” continue to hone their craft and learn from the greats, the American South will stay happy and full.

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