There’s a big, crazy world of barbecue outside of the Big Four hubs. We’ve read and tasted our way through it all in a bid to
pleasure ourselves help BBQ nerds navigate the labyrinth of regional subtleties on offer.
In our founding post on barbecue, we tackled the craftsmanship required to pull it off at the highest level and the status barbecue has acquired throughout that American South we both love. That post was more of an initiation guide. Honestly, we resorted to cheap tactics to discourage you from clicking away. Like putting lots of mouthwatering pictures of meat in there. And all those educational green quotes.
But you? You clicked here because all that still wasn’t enough barbecue for your liking. You utter beast. We thought we might be alone out here in the wilderness of barbecue nerd-dom, but damn, here you are, and here we are, and now it’s getting a bit weird. So let’s not mess with visuals here. Just hardcore barbecue domination.
Alright, just one visual. You’re here because barbecue makes you feel like this guy on the left. This guy was you, just a few hundred thousand years ago. He was already enjoying fire and meat long before North Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City or Texas were even things. And he, too, was looking for a web page on regional barbecue particularities.
So, for you and the caveman dude, here’s a fanatic’s guide to barbecue styles outside the Big Four, state by state.
Alabama – The most peculiar barbecue sauce in America is Alabama’s white concoction of mayonnaise, vinegar and black pepper. Best served with soft, smokey chicken, as first coined by Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q in Decatur.
Arkansas – The popularity of barbecue here almost equals Texas. But unlike Texas, pork is the preferred meat and some of the very best comes from the Delta region, in the eastern part of the state. Sauces are usually red and vinegary and you’ll normally get a choice of mild, medium or what I call Adult but others call hot. My keenness for African-American history leads me to tell you that Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna is the oldest African-American owned restaurant in the South.
Florida, I guess – Sigh. When it comes to BBQ, fish may as well be a vegetable. But smoked fish is the Floridian speciality and barbecued mullet, wahoo and others are the subject of many a state-wide BBQ competition. Thankfully, the Miami area mirrors the local Cuban accents with a focus on lechón asado/roast pig (cooked in a distinctive BBQ box) and offered up with a tantalising, orange-coloured, cumin-and-garlic sour sauce.
Georgia – Like neighbouring states, pork is king here. It’s cut up in a wider variety of formats than usual: you’ll find it sliced, chopped or shredded. And frequently on a bun. Georgian BBQ sauce is blended from one of the holy trio of mustard, tomato, vinegar. Or just all three because, as the saying goes, more is more. Barbecued ham is a major speciality across the state, notably at the Pink Pig in Cherry Log (apparently, an actual place name).
Kentucky – The most singular BBQ style in America? Kentucky specialises in something I once had at the end of a mammoth hike in Patagonia: smoked mutton. Only, Kentuckians make a black, smoked sauce to go with it, comprised of Worcestershire sauce, lemon and clarified butter. We think the dish originated in Owensboro, which used to be a big wool-producing hub on the Ohio River. If you prefer your classic meats, you can do that too.
Louisiana – Proud of its French-Creole and Cajun cuisine and more oriented towards the waters on its doorstep (sometimes literally), Louisiana has little BBQ personality of its own. But living in New Orleans gives access to some decent BBQ shacks (The Joint, for one) and there’s a ton of smoked local delicacies to try. Top of the list are the barbecued shellfish options, the smoked and garlicky andouille sausage, the spicy smoked ham cuts known as tasso and of course, whole cochon de lait. Most of these get a healthy coating of Cajun spicing with a particular penchant for sassafras, piment de cayenne, paprika and powdered onion/garlic.
Maryland – Not really BBQ in the traditional sense but a little openness never cost a thing. Its claim to fame is pit beef – beef round that’s grilled. It’s basically a thinly sliced round, served a little pink and loaded onto a Kaiser roll with horseradish and onions. Try a reliable rendition at CHAPS Charcoal Restaurant on Pulaski Highway, where it’s been dished out for nearly 30 years.
Mississippi – A bit of everything here, folks. Not a founder of any style per se, but known for throwing massive community barbecue feasts documented throughout history. You’ll find chicken, pork, beef and goat cooked (usually) over hickory or pecan wood and accompanied by simple tomato or mustard-based sauces.
South Carolina – As in North Carolina, barbecue here just means pork but it’s more likely to be sliced/chopped, wood ember-roasted pork shoulder. South Carolina sauces often carry a kick from mustard, not vinegar or chilli. You’ll find a lot of mustardised coleslaw, too. The eastern strip of the state has got its own thing going on, with local oysters roasted in their shell over a wood fire and dished up with melted butter and hot sauce. Great, until I remember that my oyster allergy gets me firing up a special hot sauce of my own.
Oklahoma – Quite quirky if you dodge the mainstream BBQ options. On the one hand, you’ll find chicken that’s smoked, then fried (check out Bobo’s Chicken in Oklahoma City). On the other hand, you’ll find barbecued bologna, a.k.a Oklahoma Prime Rib (check out Elma’s in Tulsa for this). You can find a whole ton of other meat and sauce options, but these two are the state’s unique offerings. If anything, Oklahoma is more famous for its BBQ equipment. It’s the home of Horizon, which makes offset barrel smokers from oil pipe, and Hasty Bake, which makes a charcoal-burning cooker that triples up as a handy smoker, grill and outdoor oven. Convenient.
Virginia – The initial spread of barbecue is probably thanks to Virginia. Colonial-era records depict lush outdoor feasts roasted over pits filled with smoky wooden embers. George Washington loved them so much he made a place for smoking his own hams at Mount Vernon. It’s a tradition that continues across Virginia to this day. As with the other coastal states of the American South, Virginia focuses on hickory and oak-smoked pork shoulder but you’ll also come across baby-back ribs, beef sirloin, chicken and even game. Sauces can be anything: thick and tomato-based, sour and vinegary, or hot and mustardy.
West Virginia – Western Virginians focus heavily on pork too (shredded or chopped) but there’s also chicken and brisket regularly on offer. They follow the same three types of sauce as their Virginian bros and hoes. Home to one of Kingord’s big charcoal briquette factories, you’ll often see a mix of charcoal and hickory used for smoking.
Wisconsin – Nothing here. It’s cold and the cows are for cheese. Shake a first at the nearest local and turn back.
Well folks (and caveman), that concludes barbecue. For a few minutes, anyway.