Get your fill of the South’s regional barbecue — sauce and all — by hitting the road.
Barbecue is more than just a style of cooking in the South. It’s a subculture with wide variation between regions. Differences in meat, preparation, cooking and especially sauce differ from state to state and even in different sections of the same state. A food road trip through the Barbecue Belt is the best way to get your fill of this Southern staple in all its delicious forms — and to find your favorite.
Our “road trip” starts in North Carolina, which represents one of the oldest forms of American barbecue. The pig dominates here and is traditionally cooked whole. Historically, British colonists joined the Native American method of smoking meat with green sticks over a fire with their own method of spit-cooking hogs. The British also introduced basting meat with butter or vinegar, while slaves of African descent imported from the Caribbean brought with them spices and peppers. Combined, these different components of early American barbecue can still be found today, especially in North Carolina.
The Atlantic coastal region of the state offers the “Eastern style,” mainly the meat from the whole hog chopped and mixed together, then served with a vinegar and pepper sauce. Eastern-style barbecue might also include bits of cracklin’ or crispy pig skin, either alongside or mixed with the meat. West Carolina barbecue is referred to as Piedmont or Lexington style, named after the town that has almost 100 different barbecue joints. This style usually sticks with wood-smoked pork shoulder and uses a similar vinegar-based sauce as the Eastern style, but with tomato, making it more of a thicker, red barbecue sauce. Because North Carolina barbecue is considered as traditional as it gets, pitmasters’ methods of cooking and making sauce have spread throughout the South. Additional influences in other regions transformed barbecue into the numerous styles that can be found today.
SOUTH CAROLINA & GEORGIA
While South Carolina also regards the whole hog as the traditional meat used, this state is best known for its special “Carolina gold” sauce — mustard-based and mixed with vinegar, brown sugar and other spices. When the Germans and French immigrated to this area, their traditional preferences shaped the cuisine found in the “mustard belt. That’s also why coleslaw is a common side for barbecue in this region, from North Carolina down to Georgia.
Alabama barbecue includes pork shoulder and pork ribs with a tomato-based sauce, but what’s unique about this state’s style is the white sauce. Traditionally served on chicken, the sauce is made with mayonnaise, as well as vinegars and a sweetener of some sort. It can be difficult to replicate Alabama barbecue sauce since the mayonnaise will separate if it gets too hot, which is also why the sauce goes on only after the meat is off the grill.
Next we move up toward The Volunteer State, which offers a wide range of barbecue options. Eastern Tennessee serves chopped whole hog and pork shoulder with either a vinegar-based or thick and sweet sauce, similar to what can be found in the Carolinas due to westward migration. But as you head further west into Tennessee, the style begins to shift. Carey Bringle, pitmaster and owner of Peg Leg Porker in Nashville, explains: “West Tennessee BBQ is pork BBQ cooked over hickory. The sauce is generally a tomato-based sauce. For ribs, dry is the preferred method. That doesn’t mean dry in texture but rather topped with dry seasoning in place of BBQ sauce. If cooking whole hog, the meat is pulled from the various parts of the hog to serve, not chopped up together like they do in the Carolinas.”
Memphis, the urban heart of the Barbecue Belt, is best known for both “dry” and “wet” pork ribs as well as pulled pork shoulder served with a tomato-based sauce. Dry ribs, as Bringle describes, are covered in a “rub” — a mix of spices and herbs — and then smoked. “Wet ribs,” on the other hand, are basted during smoking and served doused in a tomatoey sauce. Because Memphis is a port city, the creators of barbecue sauces in this area had a larger repertoire of ingredients from which to choose. Molasses was shipped up-river and became a popular seasoning.
Even though you might find other types of barbecue in western Tennessee, meats like brisket are not considered part of the barbecue tradition in the state. According to Bringle, “Brisket has never been a part of the West Tennessee BBQ scene until the last 20 years. When I was growing up, if you asked for brisket, they would tell you two things: One, that’s not BBQ, it’s steak, and two, go to Texas.”
We’re getting to Texas, but first we have to go through Mississippi, where the barbecue is quite ethnically diverse. Some of the state’s best known and most popular spots have been operated by expat families from places like Lebanon and Greece for nearly a century. Community barbecues have a long tradition in the state and may be more central to the history of Mississippi barbecue than commercial places. According to the Southern Foodways Alliance, goat barbecue has been a large part of summer picnics and reunions for generations; goats are parboiled in big cast iron laundry kettles over open fires and then smoked briefly over charcoal. Additionally, most Mississippians are familiar with the state’s most famous condiment: comeback sauce. Originating from the Jackson area, comeback sauce is best described as mayonnaise with a kick and is so delightfully zesty it can be served on almost anything.
Our final stop is Texas, where pride for regional barbecue is as big as the appetites. Meat is king here, with brisket, sausage and beef ribs most popular and sauce and sides treated as secondary elements. There are four generally recognized styles of barbecue in Texas. East Texas style most closely resembles the essential Southern barbecue with a prevalence of pork and the classic sauce. Near the state’s southern border with Mexico, you’ll find beef barbacoa or pit-smoked cow’s head traditionally cooked underground. West Texas “cowboy style” involves direct grilling over mesquite rather than offset smoking you see in other parts of the South and uses goat and mutton as well as beef. Central Texas “meat market style” — and arguably the heart of Texas barbecue — originated in the butcher shops of German and Czech immigrants to the region. German immigrants in Texas cultivated cattle, which is why here you’ll find heaping portions of brisket and ribs, which are traditionally smoked over pecan or oak wood. Brisket is a tougher cut of beef that requires cooking for a long period of time (about 12 hours or more), creating that delicious melt-in-your-mouth tenderness that’s so addictive.
Photo credits, from top: Smoked Pork Butt from The Southern Living cookbook; barbecue at The Pit in Durham, North Carolina, by Bill Russ – VisitNC.com; ribs at the South Carolina Festival of Discovery in Greenwood courtesy of DiscoverSouthCarolina.com; Carey Bringle of Peg Leg Porker courtesy of Sullivan Branding and Lockhart sausage by Kenny Braun courtesy of Texas Tourism.