Okay, so here’s the deal. What kind of meat, what kind of sauce, what method of cooking, what type of wood or heat, and how is it served. A lot to consider. And one thing is for sure–we’re not talking a backyard Weber grill here, folks. This is serious business, so let’s get to it.
In the South, especially North Carolina, the most popular outdoor version is the “pig pickin’.” Named after the Cajun phrase suckling pig, traditional Southern barbecue grew out of these gatherings, which entailed an entire hog roasted for hours, then letting guests pick their own meat off the finished product (hence the phrase “going whole hog”).
But every region has its own version, usually pork, and the sauce is what makes the difference. In North Carolina, the three varieties of sauces include vinegar-based in the east, tomato-vinegar, sometimes mustard, in the central state and a heavier tomato-based sauce in western NC. The city of Lexington, just northeast of Charlotte, proclaims itself to be the “Barbecue Capital of the World,” boasting one BBQ restaurant per 1000 people (talk about going whole hog). And throughout the South, the meat is more likely to be served on a plate, accompanied by hush puppies, coleslaw and baked beans, not in a bun smothered with ketchup (in some places considered a capital crime). When ordered, it’s simply called Q and the sides are a given. (In Texas you might get a thick piece of toast, but that’s another story.)
According to South Carolinians, only in their state will you find all four “official” sauces: mustard-based, vinegar-based, light or heavy tomato based. To the west, Memphis barbecue favors tomato- and vinegar-based sauces, and in some restaurants (or more likely BBQ shacks) the meat is rubbed with a mixture of dry seasonings before smoking over wood. Don’t even think about charcoal briquettes, considered a misdemeanor at the very least.The dry rub ingredients are a closely guarded secret, setting them apart from the guy down the street. There may not even be a sauce basted over the meat, but simply served on the side.
Moving right along, in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee barbecue is usually pork, basted with a sweet red sauce. Some rebels even dare to use a mayo-based sauce with vinegar, mostly on chicken (which is not really considered a true barbecue, anyway.) A popular item in North Carolina and Memphis is the pulled pork sandwich served on a bun and often topped with coleslaw. Pulled pork is prepared by shredding the pork after it has been barbecued, then piled high.
In the Midwest, we’re talking Kansas City-style, characterized by using different types of meat, which might be pulled pork or ribs, smoked sausage, beef brisket or ribs, smoked/grilled chicken, smoked turkey, and sometimes fish. Whew. They don’t leave anything to chance, but remember, KC is a major meat packing city, no vegetarians allowed. Hickory wood delivers the best flavor and the sauce of choice is tomato-based, spicy or mild. No hush puppies–remember you’re in the Midwest. And in Chicago, when they’re not wolfing down Italian beef sandwiches, hot dogs or pizza, they like to season the meat with a dry rub, sear it on a hot grill, then cook it slowly in a special oven. The meat, typically ribs, is then finished with a sweet and tangy red sauce. Not to worry, they won’t have you arrested if you order it on a bun (just no ketchup, understand?). Side dishes can be cooked greens, mac and cheese and sweet potatoes. Since many BBQ places are located on the South Side, they often comprise the main ticket item at soul food restaurants.
The state of Kentucky just has to be different, making mutton their meat of choice. In Maryland, beef is the ticket and it’s grilled over a high heat, served rare with horseradish. Hardly even qualifies as barbecue, so why are we spending any time on this?
Don’t mess with Texas, especially when it comes to BBQ. The bigger the better, and the Lone Star state takes no prisoners when it comes to their version (there ain’t no other version, pardner.) This tradition runs deep, and king-sized barbecues, thanks in no small part to the number of famous politicians who have hosted them over the years, try to diminish their Northern wannabes by claiming the best darn barbecue in the world. The emphasis is on the meat itself, not a sauce. Usually “Texas-style” means “Central Texas-style” and that spells b-e-e-f. Brisket is cooked over indirect heat, low and slow. They favor mesquite wood or a combo of hickory and oak, then served up on plates with potato salad, beans, slaw and a big ole slice of Texas toast. This is serious eatin’, y’all.
And there you have it. Exhausting, all these details and variations. Who’s hungry? What will you choose and where? So much barbecue, so little time.