A Field Guide to American BBQ
Barbeque is like jazz. Everyone recognizes it, but defining it can be tricky because there are so many styles and variations. It's a beach umbrella of a concept that covers everything from whole hogs cooked for hours over hardwood embers to chicken quarters grilled for a fraction of that time.
To make sense of the delicious confusion, here's a field guide to regional styles of American barbeque. There are more out there than the shorthand we see about four barbeque regions (Texas, Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City). Let's sort them out by applying three filters: the meat cooked, the sauce it's served with, and the distinctive dishes that indicate a particular barbeque terroir.
Pork has long reigned supreme in the country's original barbeque belt: the Deep South. Within the vast crescent from Virginia to East Texas, there are subregions like the coastal Carolinas, where whole hog barbeque is the historic specialty. But for most of the South — especially the Carolina Piedmont, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee — barbeque means pig parts: ribs or a pork cut like a shoulder, butt, or ham, slowly cooked and then chopped or sliced.
From Texas to California, cows rule in the West. The ancestral homeland of beef barbeque is Texas, especially the central part of the state around Austin, where restaurants like Kreuz Market have been smoking cattle for more than a century. In recent decades, Lone Star barbequers have gone from cooking sides of beef to brisket, a cut that has become one of the trendiest and most ubiquitous dishes in American barbeque.
In Western Kentucky, around the Ohio River city of Owensboro, a history of sheep farming made mutton a favorite barbeque meat. In South Texas, Mexican Americans established barbequed goat as a beef alternative. In Colorado, a taste for barbequed lamb lingers from frontier days. In the Pacific Northwest, indigenous people cooked fish over alder wood, making smoked salmon barbeque by another name. (Along the Gulf Coast of Florida, there's a similar tradition of smoked mullet.)
In coastal Carolina, whole hog barbeque is served with pig-pickin' sauce, a tomato-less vinegar concoction full of spicy seasonings. It's a throwback to America's first barbeque sauce, the way it was before ketchup caught on and became the dominant flavor in modern bottled sauces.
In parts of South Carolina and Georgia, pork barbeque comes with mustard sauce (or a tomato-mustard blend), a regional eccentricity that's especially pronounced in the Midlands — the central part of the Palmetto State.
That mutton region around Owensboro likes to use a thin black sauce that some jokingly call sheep dip.
Part of the Deep South pork belt, the city is known for pork sandwiches served with slaw inside the buns, for proto-fusion dishes like barbeque spaghetti and pizza, and for ribs served "wet" with sauce or "dry" with seasonings — a dish originated at the Rendezvous restaurant.
Perhaps no other place excels at such a wide variety of barbeque styles as this crossroads of the West and the Mid-South. The most renowned dish, once a throwaway item, has to be burnt ends, the charred and heavily seasoned tips of brisket, first popularized at Arthur Bryant's Barbeque.
On the other end of Missouri, they're known for ribs, grilled pork steaks drowned in red barbeque sauce and snoots — slang for grilled pig snouts.
African Americans migrating from the South brought barbeque to the South Side and established a new kind of eatery: The urban rib shack. Joints such as Lem's became renowned for rib tips, a chewy, messy dish that's to pork ribs what burnt ends are to brisket.
In the Santa Maria Valley of California, the Spanish rancheros left a legacy that revolves around a specific cut, beef trip-tip, seasoned with garlic and grilled over coastal live oak.
We could name other places known for barbeque-related specialties: barbequed oysters in California, pit beef in Baltimore, barbequed shrimp in New Orleans, and so forth. But you get the point: Barbeque isn't as simple as it's often portrayed. It's as varied and complicated as America itself, which is a beautiful thing.