Even within regions, controversy reigns over what’s the true 'cue. Barbecue lovers don’t even agree on how to spell the word. Barbecue, BBQ and barbeque are common variants to denote the same tender, usually slow-cooked meat. Differences based on the immigrant backgrounds of citizens, the types of wood available and which meat is produced in the region play a part in determining what type of barbecue you’ll encounter.
North Carolina boasts two distinct styles of barbecue, but smoked pork is always the main star of the dish. Generally, in the east, a whole hog is dressed with a vinegar-based sauce, with no tomato. From the Piedmont west, the sauce is ketchup-based and the meat is pork shoulder. The two regions are separated by the “Gnat Line,” where the sandy soil gives way to the clay of the Piedmont. Eastern South Carolina goes the vinegar route, but the state is also home to a mustard-based sauce, probably thanks to the large number of 18th-century German immigrants.
Although other meats are used, Texas barbecue focuses on slow-smoked beef brisket. Large cuts of meat cook slowly in a smoker so the outside of the brisket doesn’t overcook before the interior is done. The rule of thumb is one hour of cooking at between 200 and 250 degrees Fahrenheit for each pound of meat, and the favored woods are oak, pecan, hickory and mesquite. The dry rub applied to the meat before smoking can be as simple as generous amounts of salt and pepper or can include other dry spices like cayenne pepper and garlic powder. Pit masters disagree on whether or not the meat should be “mopped” with a wet sauce while it’s cooking.
Kansas City vs. Memphis
Kansas City claims to be the birthplace of the burnt end, the oddly shaped pieces of brisket that are better chopped than sliced. The chopped meat is covered with sauce and served or returned to the smoker. While the area’s most famous sauces are savory, a typical Kansas City sauce is thick and sweet and mopped onto the meat as it cooks. Pork reigns in Memphis, where Charlie Vergos invented a dry rub for pork ribs. Unlike slow-smoked barbecue, the ribs are cooked on charcoal and sauced after they’re done. Elsewhere in the city, barbecue enthusiasts argue over rubs and sauces, but most agree that chopped pork on a soft bun topped with coleslaw defines Memphis 'cue.
The Mid-South and Mayo ‘Cue
In parts of Mississippi, goat is the preferred meat at community barbecues. Goats are boiled in huge pots over an open fire and then smoked over charcoal. In other areas of the state, outdoor covered barbecue pits for low-heat slow cooking are built from cinder blocks. Alabama has several recognizably different barbecue sauces. In the northern part of the state, sauces are vinegar-based. South of Birmingham, sauce is tomato-based. In eastern Alabama, mustard makes it way into the sauce. The most unusual sauce is a combination of mayonnaise, vinegar and lemon juice seasoned with salt and pepper, served over smoked chicken.
- The Washington Post: On N.C. Barbecue, East and West Don’t Meet -- Except to Argue
- Humanities and Social Sciences Online: Pits, Personalities, and Places -- An Education on Tarheel ‘Cue
- South Carolina Barbecue Association: A Very Brief History of the Four Types of Barbecue Found in the USA
- Texas A&M Agriculture & Life Sciences: Texas Barbecue -- Cooking & Smoking
- Texas Monthly: Smoked Brisket
- Amazing Ribs: Barbecue Beef Brisket Texas Style
- Texas A&M Agriculture & Life Sciences: Texas Barbecue -- Meat Selection
- Visit KC: The ABCs of KC BBQ
- K-State Research and Extension: BBQ 101
- Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous Charcoal Ribs: In the News
- Photo Credit Taylor Foster/iStock/Getty Images
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