Barbecue is a perennial tailgating favorite, but there’s a lot people don’t know about this regional specialty
By Jacque Kochak
The barbecue belt stretches from eastern Virginia to southwest Texas, but you’ll find an enormous amount of variation in between. On the southern Atlantic coast, whole hogs are skewered, smoked and barbecued on an open pit. In the Carolinas aficionados enjoy pulled pork, and in Memphis, look for pork ribs. In Alabama, barbecue is usually pork as well. Naturally, beef meets pork where East meets West—in Kansas City. And in Texas, barbecue better be beef.
Choice of meat isn’t the only difference between regions. In the Carolinas, the pulled pork is sprinkled with a clear, vinegar-based sauce and served with hush puppies, slaw and Brunswick stew. In the heart of North Carolina the sauce starts to get red, and by the time you get to South Carolina the red is shading into orange as mustard becomes part of the recipe. The further south you go, the sauces get more yellow, but as you cross into Georgia and Alabama the sauces turn red again—sometimes.
By the time you get as far west as Texas, brisket and hot link sausage are the stars (with pork spareribs taking merely a supporting role) and the red sauce is thin, soupy and often served on the side.
Alabama lies between the barbecue poles of Memphis and the Carolinas, notes the Encyclopedia of Alabama. As a result, styles vary within the state, with vinegar-based sauces in the northern part of the state, but fading out south of Birmingham. Variations of tomato-based sauces are popular throughout the state, with the mustard influence creeping in as you move into east Alabama. Alabama also enjoys its very own white sauce, made from mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, black pepper, and salt. The sauce was created at Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q restaurant in Decatur in 1925 and has evolved into a kitchen staple. And, its use has expanded far beyond chicken.
As if the questions of meat and sauce were not enough, there are also variations in preferred fuel. Mesquite smoke gives a completely different flavor from maplewood smoke, and hickory—most often used in Alabama—offers a still different flavor. If you are from Memphis or points west, there is the question of whether you prefer “wet” ribs or a dry rub. Traditionally, wet marinades are a thin mixture of vinegar and spices used to baste and tenderize the meat, while a dry rub is a mixture of spices rubbed on the meat before cooking, particularly in the Southwest and Midwest.
Today, of course, barbecue usually involves charcoal briquets instead of wood. Did you know that automaker Henry Ford teamed up with Thomas Edison and E.B. Kingsford to first manufacture charcoal briquettes from sawdust and wood scraps at Ford’s plants in Detroit? We owe Ford and Edison more than we thought!
Open-pit vs. closed-pit
What is more, closed-pit barbecue tastes different from open-pit barbecue. Open-pit barbecuing, which is still popular in the eastern Carolinas and some parts of the Deep South, involves placing the meat uncovered on a rack directly over a bed of coals far enough from the heat source so that the cooking temperature will remain at a constant 200 to 250 degrees F. A closed pit barbecue traditionally involves digging a pit in the ground, but now fancy, lidded barbecue cookers are available. The meat is placed to the side of the coals so cooking is by indirect heat, with the heat also maintained at 200 to 250 degrees F. The reason many favor a closed-pit barbecue is because the intense smokiness imbues a special flavor to the meat.
As every Southerner knows, real barbecue is not the grilled chicken and hamburgers served across much of the United States. Real barbecue is slow-cooked, with plenty of smoke. Slow-cooked can mean hours, not 20 minutes on a hot grill in the backyard, with the flames leaping up as the fat drips onto the charcoal.
Barbecue has often been a social gathering from the very earliest Colonial days. In the Deep South, you cooked outside if you were poor—the wealthy had kitchen structures and cooks.
Smoking continued to be a favored way to preserve meats, and open pit barbecues were prepared for celebrations such as weddings, holidays and political gatherings. In the pre-Civil-War South, the plantation master and the wealthy got the best cuts of meat, so the slaves and the poor developed methods to make tough cuts palatable—even delicious. For more on the history of barbecue, see AmazingRibs.com, about the science of barbecue and grilling.
Over time, however, barbecue became popular. By the late 1800s or early 1900s, a few restaurants sold the Southern specialty. Despite barbecue’s popularity, however, few barbecue restaurants were able to proliferate by franchising. The long, slow cooking time leads to meat shrinkage and high food costs, for one thing. And a degree of skill is needed to get barbecue just right. Nevertheless, a few good barbecue chains have evolved, taking this regional specialty into new territory.