Explaining American BBQ To The World

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My Post-Thanksgiving Craving for Barbecue

The turkey is finally all gone. There are no more mashed potatoes. The last slice of pumpkin pie went days ago. Ahead lies a Christmas dinner featuring more or less the same stuff. It’s all wonderful, but no one can eat that stuff day in day out for weeks on end. This time of year, I find myself craving something different, usually barbecue – and this year is no exception.

Now, barbecue is not the same as grilling. I know a lot of people use the words interchangeably, but the difference is significant. Grilling is cooking quickly over high heat – ideal for hot dogs, hamburgers and steaks. I usually grill when I cook outdoors. Barbecue is cooking slowly over low heat. Grilling is a sprint; barbecuing is a marathon. Quite simply, I lack the patience and the talent to be a master of barbecue.

Grilling is still a way life. I grew up out in Colorado, where the west begins, and that means cooking outdoors year round. Yes, I have had steaks right off the grill for Christmas and at New Year’s. The weather doesn’t matter; if you can get the charcoal to light, you’re in business. And it has to be charcoal. Gas grills are pointless. I have written about the basis of grilling elsewhereand about more exotic ways of doing it.

But that isn’t what I want.

Barbecue’s Origins

The origins of barbecue date back to the arrival of the Spanish in the New World. Columbus himself encountered “a unique method for cooking meat over an indirect flame, created using green wood to keep the food (and wood) from burning. Reports indicate that the Spanish referred to this new style of cooking as barbacoa: the original barbecue.”

According to Smithsonian magazine, “in 1540, close to present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, the Chicksaw tribe, in the presence of explorer Hernando de Soto, cooked a feast of pork over the barbacoa. Eventually, the technique made its way to the colonies, traveling as far north as Virginia.”

George Washington had a large smokehouse at his plantation at Mt. Vernon. His diary entry for May 27, 1769 (2:154) read” “Went in to Alexandria to a Barbecue and stayed all Night.” In September 1773, he hosted”a Barbicue of my own giving at Accatinck.”

Some Quick Stats About Barbecue In The United States

  • 66,200,000 individuals in the US have had a cook out in the past year.
  • Hot dogs (72 percent of of the time), steak (71 percent), burgers (69 percent), and chicken parts (64 percent) are the most popular items to cook outdoors
  • 76% of US households own a grill.
  • 76% of that 76% (3 out of 4 grill owners) fire up their grill on July 4
  • 58% fire up their grill on Memorial Day and 51% on Labor Day 
  • There are 3,223 barbecue/grill specialty retailers in the U.S. and Canada, but most people buy their grills at discount stores
  • 58% of grills are used all year round
  • Just over half of grill owners are heavy/medium users (using their grill about four times a month) but they do more than 85% of the cooking
  • 61% of grill owners own an liquid propane (LP) gas grill; 48% charcoal grill; 9% natural gas grill; 7% outdoor electric grill
  • The typical grill owner owns 1.4 grills. About half (48%) of all grill owners own a gas grill only; 3 out of 10 (29%) own a charcoal grill only; while nearly 1 out of 5 (18%) owns a both a charcoal and gas grill.
  • Ownership of LP gas grills is especially high in the Northeast as compared to other regions of the U.S. which explains why no one wants to eat Northeast style barbecue.
  • Favorite barbecue sauces are hickory, tomato-based, honey and mesquite.
  • About 20% of outdoor chefs used wood in the past year, with charcoal chefs using it most often. 
  • 33% of those cooking outdoors use dry meat rubs more often than not

American Barbecue as we know it is very much a Southern thing – the Barbecue Belt stretches from Virginia and the Carolinas to Kansas City and Texas. That’s a fair piece of real estate, taking up more area than France.

So not surprisingly, there are regional variations in barbecue across Dixie. They all have one thing in common – slow, low heat. There is a tendency to cook pork rather than beef or chicken (but there are exceptions), and the way it is served and the side dishes can vary widely. So in no particular order, here are the various types of American barbecue:

North Carolina Eastern Style

Image Source: Dante’s Devine

This is a pork-only style of barbecue, seen mainly along the Atlantic coast in the state of North Carolina. Take a whole hog (this is a lot even with American-sized portions) and chop it up.

It’s brushed with a spice and vinegar mixture during cooking, and served with a ketchup-based sauce. “One of the most compelling aspects of this style is that the cracklin’, or pig skin, is also served alongside the meat and provides both a distinct textural contrast to the tender meat and a salty punch.

North Carolina Lexington Style

Image Source: Amazing Ribs

In the western part of the state, they don’t use the whole hog but rather they cook the pork shoulder. The Lexington Style is also called Piedmont style, derives from a Bavarian dish of pork shoulder with a sweet and sour vinegar sauce. Coleslaw and baked beans are traditional sides.

South Carolina BBQ

Image Source: The Bite Sized Blog

South Carolina uses the whole hog, similar to their neighbors in North Carolina who cook eastern style. However, they have a mustard-based sauce, “Carolina Gold” that started with the region’s French and German immigrants – think Dijon mustard and pretzels with mustard. “The ‘mustard belt’ stretches from Charleston to Columbia. But other types of sauces abound from a simple vinegar to ones tinged with ketchup.”

“In the Eastern part of the state, the barbecue is largely indistinguishable from that of the Eastern Style of its neighbor to the North (whole hog served with a simple vinegar and pepper sauce). In the West we find some bleed over from the Lexington Style of North Carolina. And in the Southwestern part of the state, barbecue sauce with a significant ketchup component dominates.”

Kentucky Barbecue

Image Source: Lucky Dog Barbecue

As barbecue moved west from its Carolina/Virginia birthplace (and we’ll let the people who live there fight over the title), it evolved to take into account local tastes and ingredients. Thus in the eastern part of that state, you have the same sort of pork shoulder and vinegar sauce that you see in North Carolina.

Farther west, around a place called Owensboro, they serve mutton barbecue with a Worcestershire-based sauce known locally as “dip.” I have never actually had that (I am not a big fan of mutton anyway), but there are Kentuckians who swear by it. Traditionalists from the Carolinas doubt its authenticity.

Memphis Barbecue

Image Source: The Paupered Chef

In eastern Tennessee, you tend to get the same kind of BBQ you find in the Carolinas, but in Memphis, things get a little more complicated. This type is best known for its “wet” and “dry” pork ribs. Dry ribs are covered in a “rub” — a mix of spices and herbs — and then smoked. Wet ribs are basted during smoking and come covered in a tomato-based barbecue sauce.

Pulled pork shoulder (cooked till it easily can be “pulled” from the bone, which I believe is the ambrosia on which the Greek gods dined) is big here as well served most easily in a sandwich with the aforementioned sauce. Pulled chicken is also available, but it’s just not the same.

Kansas City Barbecue

Image Source: 10 Best

As you continue westward, you eventually get to Kansas City (which is the name of two cities, one in Kansas and another across the border in Missouri – don’t ask, because I don’t know why). Every western movie you have ever seen that had a cattle drive had KC as its destination. It was where the railroad would take cattle to markets in the east.

So, Kansas City barbecue features pork, beef and chicken. The meat is cooked low and slow over hickory wood, which imparts a sweetness in the smoke. The sauce is much heavier than sauces found in the east, composed chiefly of molasses and tomatoes. The specialty here is burnt ends, the ends of beef brisket, wonderfully fatty and flavorful. 

Central Texas Style

Image Source: Venue Viking

Going south and west from Kansas City, you come to Central Texas (a style of barbecue that extends into Oklahoma). Settled by Czechs and Germans, the meat markets here take their products seriously. Smoked over pecan or oak wood, the sliced brisket here is as good as it gets, and beef ribs come a close second. The side dishes here are an afterthought as is the sauce. Sausages feature in central Texas barbecue joints as well.

Eastern Texas Style

BBQ Express 02
Image Source: Gospel Barbecue

BBQ Eastern Texas style is about half and half pork to beef, and it’s usually chopped rather than sliced. Experts say this is best served on a bun and doused in a spicy, sweet tomato sauce. You also find turkey here.


Image Source: TM Barbecue

Coming back eastward, you get to Alabama. Now maybe it’s because my wife is from Decatur, Alabama, and that’s colored my palate over the years. And it could be that Big Bob Gibson’s sauce is my favorite, and Decatur is its home. What you get with Alabama BBQ is a meal between the extremes with Texas and Carolina influences.

The ribs rock, the pulled pork is worth the trip, and chicken and beef are on the menu. What stands out in Alabama barbecue is the white sauce, a mayonnaise and vinegar condiment that stands in stark contrast to sauces elsewhere. It’s meant for chicken, but I like it on pulled pork, too.

Here’s my problem (and quite possibly yours). I am not in the South right now. I live in New York City, a place known for a great many culinary delights but not barbecue. New York City barbecue is done well, but it is done by people who have emigrated here from the BBQ Belt.

Hey, any port in a storm right?

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