The geography of American barbecue
In some parts of the US, spare ribs are served with cornbread. (Carolyn Taylor Photography/Getty)
To enthusiasts, true American barbecue is made by slow-cooking meat over low heat from a wood fire. The meat can vary, with pork, beef, chicken and lamb being most common, and when done right, the result is succulent, juicy and tender with a nuanced and robust flavour.
Of course barbecuing is not exclusively a US tradition. In India, meats are barbecued in a tandoor, or clay oven, fired by wood or charcoal. In Argentina, asado is made by barbecuing meat over an open fire or a wood-fired parrilla, or grill. In Mongolia, mutton is barbecued in a pot with heated stones and then cooked over an open fire for the dish khorkhog, while whole marmot or goat is stuffed with heated stones and cooked over a fire for boodog.
In the US, barbecuing was originally a common technique in Native American cooking. Sixteenth-century British colonists learned the method, and it eventually spread to the south, the part of the country most associated with barbecue today, around the 19th Century. Regional approaches to barbecue, predicated on local tastes and resources, then emerged in the early 20th Century, according to Robert F Moss’s Barbecue: the History of an American Institution.
Today, America’s obsession with barbecue is known throughout the world. While the four “capitals” of US barbecue are considered to be the Carolinas, Memphis, Texas and Kansas City, the nation has given birth to a myriad of regional styles, all of which have been honed to perfection over the years. Let this roadmap be your guide to the American states and cities that have elevated the act of slow-cooking meat to an art form.
Carolina ‘cue changes a lot depending on where you are. North Carolina’s main styles are often referred to as “Eastern Carolina barbecue” and “Western Carolina barbecue” (or “Lexington barbecue”, since Lexington is the go-to barbecue town in the west), while South Carolina’s regional variations are less strictly delineated.
In all three varieties – Eastern Carolina, Western Carolina and South Carolina – pork is slow-cooked over a wood-fired pit or grill. The meat is pulled, chopped and served in a sandwich with homemade coleslaw. But while Eastern Carolina uses the whole pig, and dresses its pulled pork with vinegar and sometimes a touch of hot pepper, Western Carolina uses the shoulder of the pig and adds a thick tomato-based or ketchup-based sauce to its pulled pork, which it serves with red coleslaw. South Carolina barbecue uses the whole pig, shoulder, butt (the upper shoulder) or ham (the hind quarter), and the sauce varies throughout the state. A tomato-based or ketchup-based sauce can be found upstate; a vinegar and hot pepper sauce can be found in the northeast; and a mustard-based sauce can be found in the middle.
While pulled pork sandwiches (using pork shoulder and served with coleslaw) can be found in most Memphis barbecue joints, ribs are the city’s specialty. Dry rub ribs, seasoned with salt and spices, are the shinning star of Memphis barbecue, though wet rub ribs, covered in a tomato-based sauce, are also ubiquitous. In all cases, the pork is slow-cooked over a wood-fired pit or grill.
In Texas, beef reigns supreme but pork barbecue is not hard to find. The state is especially known for its beef brisket, often served with no sauce. As with the Carolinas, barbecue styles shift through the state.
In central Texas, where many German and Czech immigrants settled in the 1800s, beef (brisket and sausage) and pork (ribs and sausage) are dry-rubbed and slow-cooked over a pecan or oak wood-fired grill. Ribs are often served with a thin tomato-vinegar sauce. In east Texas, pork shoulder, ribs and sausage are slow-cooked over a hickory-fired grill, sometimes with a tomato-based sauce. In southern Texas, certain places serve a style of Mexican barbecue, or barbacoa, in which the head of a cow is slow-roasted over a mesquite-fired pit and served with tortillas and salsa.
Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City is known for its sauce-heavy barbecue and its “burnt ends”, or brisket tips, which come from a slow-smoked batch of beef brisket. Ribs are slathered in a tomato-and-molasses-based sauce and slow-cooked over a fire or grill, while burnt ends are smoked until crisp and charred and then served with the same sauce, which is usually very sweet and can be slightly sour and spicy as well.
St Louis, Missouri
In St Louis, pork steaks rule. Steaks are cut from the shoulder or butt, cooked on a grill and then covered in a sweet, tomato-based sauce. Unique to St Louis is its crunchy “snoot”, which is meat from the jaw/cheek and nose area of the pig’s face, accessed by cutting off the nostrils of its snout. Snoot is grilled until crispy and served in a sandwich.
Chicago ribs, slow-cooked over a wood- or charcoal-fired pit or grill, are all about the finger-licking sweet, tangy and smoky tomato-based sauce that they’re drenched in. In addition to pork rib platters, Chicago barbecue joints serve up rib tips, the juicy cartilage ends of the ribs that sometimes get cut off and thrown away.
The wool industry in Kentucky gave way to mutton as the popular meat for local barbecue -- especially in the west of the state -- since aging sheep are of more use for their meat than their fleece. The sheep meat is slow-smoked, either in a smoker or over a hickory wood fire, and brushed with a sour, tangy sauce. It is pulled, chopped and served in a sandwich, often with “Mutton Dip”, a local blend of water, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, lemon juice, brown sugar, salt, pepper and spices and sometimes even Kentucky bourbon.
Alabama barbecue is known for its distinctive white sauce – a mayonnaise-based accompaniment made with vinegar, salt and pepper, and devoid of tomato flavours. In Alabama, either chicken or pork (shoulder, butt, ham or ribs) is slow-cooked over a pecan wood fire or grill, then pulled, chopped and served in a sandwich, covered in sauce. Sometimes the chicken is cooked in the sauce as well.
Santa Maria, California
Santa Maria is America’s stronghold for tri-tip beef barbecue, often served with salsa on the side. The tri-tip, the triangle-shaped bottom sirloin portion of the cow, is dry rubbed and then slow-smoked over a red oak wood fire. Its tradition began with early American cowboys who would slow-cook skewered meats over fires fuelled by red oak wood.
One frequent star of the lu’au, Hawaii’s lively celebratory feasts of traditional foods, is kalua pig – pork cooked all day long in an imu, an underground oven made by simply digging out a hole in the ground. The meat is dry rubbed with sea salt and spices, covered in banana leaves and cooked over a fire at the bottom of the imu. Hawaiian barbecue is not served with sauce.
Competitive barbeque in Alaska is no different from barbecue elsewhere in the US, involving slow-cooked pork, beef or chicken. But as Michael Karl Witzel mentions in his book Barbecue Road Trip, one popular Alaskan barbecue dish is prepared using the state’s local, wild-caught specialty, salmon, which is placed on cedar planks and then smoked over a fire or a grill. The sauce, which typically uses the tomato-and-molasses base found in barbecue sauces throughout the country, is usually used to baste the fish, and the remainder is poured on top.
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.