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It’s not a big exaggeration to say that the history of barbecue mirrors the history of the United States of America. Both stories include regional rivalries, immigrant contributions, arguments that pit brother against brother yet ultimately come together in an understanding of how our differences make us stronger.
It has become a popular pastime to take road trips across the country, particularly the South, to experience the different regional styles of smoked meats. While this makes for a delicious diversion, a little research into the historical reasons for the various styles can lead to a deeper understanding of barbecue and of the nation.
America’s forefathers arrived throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, primarily from European nations. They brought cultural mores and culinary traditions with them, but encountered a New World that was wild and difficult to tame. They discovered unfamiliar produce and had to learn how to use ingredients that had never appeared in their European pantries.
Throughout the new frontier, early American settlers discovered all sorts of feral pigs running around. In the ages before ranching, this was pretty handy, since pigs provide a lot of protein and nourishment per pound and are a fairly hearty animal. Need I mention that they’re also delicious?
Well, to be fair, pork is only delicious after proper preparation. Fortunately, settlers in many different regions made the same serendipitous discoveries about how to best cook a pig, especially if the goal is to utilize (almost) the whole animal. Because pigs are such sturdy beasts, their meat can be tough and full of sinews that need to be broken down to render them palatable. The best was to do this is to cook the entire animal slowly at a low temperature; this allows the collagen that holds those tough muscles together to slowly melt down. Basting the meat helps, too. Another trick is to keep the animal moist during the long cook by mopping it in some sort of acidic sauce to help further break down the meat.
Put these processes together, and you’ve got barbecue! Yet not every region followed the exact same procedures to complete this low and slow cooking. In Hawaii, they dug a pit in the sand and lined it with heated volcanic rocks for an even reflection of heat. They wrapped the pig in leaves to keep it insulated and moist. The result is the delicious kalua pork often featured at luaus.
Texans preferred to dig pits, but these were shallower holes than those in Hawaii and the pig was covered with maguey leaves and cooked over spicy mesquite fires. This technique actually gives barbecue its name from the term barbacoa, which may have come to Texas and Mexico from Caribbean islands like Barbados.
In the Southeast, early settlers built pits above ground out of stones, but still with an eye toward managing the fire and temperature to keep the pig from cooking too fast—a key difference between roast pork and barbecue. Roast pork may be delicious but it lacks the luxurious mouthfeel of a piece of pulled pork belly basted in delicious collagen.
While the basic cooking methods share similarities, barbecue exhibits a sort of regional terroir that’s rooted primarily in the wood used to create the heat and smoke as well as what pitmasters choose to add to their basting mops and finishing sauces. Different tree woods contribute unique flavors when used as the fuel to cook pork. Of course early settlers didn’t have the luxury to order bags of lump charcoal from Amazon; they used what was around them.
In states like Tennessee and North Carolina where hickory is prevalent, the bold sweet aroma of the smoke is more prevalent, contributing a delicious bacon-like flavor to the meat. In Mississippi, pecan trees are a common source of cooking wood, so that barbecue has an expected nutty quality to it. Further west in Texas, mesquite and post oak are typically used, often in combination. Mesquite burns hot and fast, adding a spicy undernote to the meat, so it needs to be supplemented with oak which burns longer and slower with a milder aroma and flavor—plus, oak contributes a really lovely color to the finished product.
Sauces also relied upon available ingredients in each region, but with a nod to historical ethnic heritage. The Germans who settled in South Carolina were used to eating meat with spicy mustards, which is why you’ll still see “Carolina Gold” mustard-based barbecue sauces in smoke shacks across the Palmetto State. The Piedmont region of western North Carolina is known for its “Lexington Dip,” another sauce with German origins. Bavarian immigrants used to serve their pork with sweet and tart vinegar sauces. Modern Piedmonters add some ketchup to the traditional sauce and serve it with their barbecue as well as mixed into unique red coleslaw.
North Carolina is a state divided in its sauce preferences, with the break falling roughly on each side of Interstate 95. The eastern half of the state prefers cooking whole hogs instead of shoulders, and that region’s favorite sauce ranks among the simplest of all recipes: it is pepper- rather than tomato-based and is specifically a mix of hot sauce and vinegar. The hot sauce of choice is usually Texas Pete—which, despite its name, is produced in Winston-Salem, N.C. Rather than served on the side, this sauce is typically used to baste the meat and add spice throughout the long cook. The western half of North Carolina centers around the bbq-tropolis of Lexington where “Piedmont Style” focuses on just the shoulder of the pig, which is curiously known as the “butt” even though it is nowhere near the north end of a southbound hog. Even though it’s not whole hog, Piedmont-style barbecue is still delicious, slowly and carefully cooked for hours in a smoky pit before being chopped or pulled and dressed with that tangy vinegar/ketchup/pepper dip.
Up in Kentucky, Scottish immigrants arrived with a history of cooking lamb instead of pork, and mutton past its shearing years were deemed fine for the fire. However, these gamey old sheep need quite a bit of help in the form of tenderizing and flavor, so Kentucky pitmasters depend on a salty brine of Worcestershire dip to make the meat more palatable. It’s really…something. Alabama has developed an interesting mayonnaise-based white barbecue sauce that is usually preferred for chicken, but can be great on pork as well.
Further west, ketchup is king in the stickier sauces of Memphis and Kansas City that boast the “sweet heat” most American’s palates seem to favor—for proof, just check out the shelf of commercial barbecue sauces at your local grocery store. Ask a Texan what he wants on his brisket and he’ll probably tell you “salt and pepper,” which are indeed the primary spices of Texas barbecue cooking. Sauce is a rare addition in that state and considered a sign of bad barbecue if you need to serve sauce on the table, but cooks do occasionally depend on mops made from beef stock, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and spices such as salt, pepper and garlic to accentuate flavors during the cooking process.
While there are so many different ideas about what makes the best barbecue with regards to procedures, wood source, sauces, and so on, all are based in the same fierce regional pride. Deep down, we have much more in common than what divides us, and barbecue is a great example about how we can enjoy what makes other people different from us. Take a trip and experience the melting pot that is American barbecue.
Plan A Trip
Taste your way through American barbecue at these classic regional destinations: