“Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Europe’s wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes." –John Shelton Reed (Southern sociologist)
Barbecue. Also known as barbeque or BBQ: it’s a technique that involves cooking meat for long periods of time at low temperatures with smoke from a wood fire. This very specific common denominator, however, is a mere jumping-off point for a nation full of regional styles.
According to a 2014 State of the Barbecue Industry Report, 80% of U.S. households own an outdoor barbecue, grill, or smoker. And yet, the methods chosen to cook meat this way varies widely, depending on the region and, of course, personal preference.
North Carolina BBQ is wholly different from Kansas City BBQ, which is a whole other story from Texan BBQ. Read on for a regional breakdown of how this vast, beautiful nation cooks, marinates, cuts, and dresses its meat. And good luck not immediately leaping to the closest BBQ restaurant from your phone.
1. Texas Styles
You weren’t expecting Texan BBQ to comprise of just one kind, were you? To put things in perspective, Texas is about the size of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined. It’s massive. So it stands to reason there are going to be some differing methods of cooking meat found across the state.
There’s East Texas style, found in most urban areas and cooked over hickory wood using a tomato-based sauce. There’s also the German and Czech immigrant-legacy methods of Central Texas’s “meat market butcher style,” which champions sliced meat and uses pecan or oak wood and a spice rub.
There’s West Texan “cowboy style,” which involves cooking directly over mesquite and involves goat and mutton in addition to the beef while South Texas barbecue champions cooking the entire head of the cow using a thick molasses-type sauce to keep the meat moist.
On a recent trip to Dallas, I found a Central Texas style. Typically served with butcher paper, this kind of BBQ is all sides, which I love: side o’ mac ‘n’ cheese here, a couple of sides of white toast or a bun, and delicious BBQ sauce on the table for generous application to the personal specificity of the diner.
At Lockhart’s Smoke House, where they smoke the meat over Texas post oak, I had brisket so soft it had the mouthfeel of salmon. At Pecan Lodge, the BBQ pit runs 24 hours a day and the mac ‘n’ cheese made from scratch brought tears to my eyes. And YES, it’s hard to type amidst all this memory-drool, but I’m managing.
2. Carolinas Styles
Both Carolina and Memphis rely on pork (whereas Texan and Kansas styles include beef). For many years, pigs were the major economic commodity for Southerners.
Brought to the Americas by Spanish explorers, by the colonial era pigs were one of America’s greatest sources of income since they can quickly convert feed to meat. As such, Memphis style boasts PORK of all kinds: pulled, shredded, chopped, or sliced. Hardwoods are mainly used, such as oak or hickory.
Eastern North Carolina uses the whole pig and a thin vinegar-based spicy sauce. Western North and South Carolina champion a tomato-based sauce, whereas, in central South Carolina, the eponymous “CAROLINA GOLD” sauce made from a mixture of yellow mustard, vinegar, brown sugar, and spices gets used.
3. Memphis Style
After World War II, a proliferation of barbecue restaurants – which became known as “joints” – opened in Memphis. The city is now home to the annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
Memphis barbecue differentiates itself by being dish-based: it’s either a plate of ribs or it’s a barbecue sandwich. The ribs are served wet (rubbed with sauce before and after cooking) or dry (a dry seasoning). Sandwiches are typically the ambrosially simple combination of chopped pork on a bun with barbecue sauce and coleslaw.
4. Kansas City Style
Kansas City barbecue includes a variety of meats – mainly beef, pork, and lamb, but also poultry – smoked over a variety of woods. The sauce for this BBQ is characterized best as sweet, spicy, and tangy, with a tomato base.
Henry Perry brought barbecue to Kansas City from Memphis once he migrated there. For years, he served ribs on newspaper pages out of a trolley barn. Because it was a Memphis native that brought BBQ to Kansas City, the styles are very similar, although KC has a much wider variety of meats with more sauces.
5. Chicago Style
Chicago uses an aquarium smoker opposed to the metal smokers of the above regions. The “aquarium” gets filled with several levels of meat racks rather than water, and underneath is the wood which flavors the meat.
The typical Chicago barbecue dish is rib tips atop French fries and underneath a generous helping of sauce. Hot links, or large pork sausages, are also very popular. South Side sauces are thick, sweet, and hot, and as important as the meat itself.
Now, I’d love to keep mulling over all these differences, but honestly after writing this, I’ve got to go EAT SOME BBQ IMMEDIATELY. Sadly, I live in Los Angeles, where I will sooner run into a green juice of questionable texture than a quarter pound of perfectly pulled pork, but I shall persevere regardless.