American barbecue is one of the Great cuisines of the world. With imitation joints now springing up worldwide, it’s time to acknowledge the craftsmanship of Southern barbecue and get familiar with its four main styles. A world of smoky delight awaits the willing (and also, the unwilling pigs).
The kind of excellence that clamps your senses so firmly into the present, all distractions dissipate. Isn’t that the kind of experience we live for? A moment when the world disappears and all that’s left is you and the Greatness on offer?
Great barbecue gets us exactly that. It’s every bit as interesting and intricate as the work of Japan’s sushi itamae. It’s dismissed as a base form of food yet it’s been some of the finest in my life – food being 50% of my life. Barbecue’s always been synonymous with good times. Happy times, as pitmaster Ed Mitchell says in the video above.
Beautiful, candied bark on a fumy pork rib begging to drop off the bone. Moist, unctuous beef brisket with that rich, blackened outer char. The delicious texture of perfectly pulled pork bathing in its light, tangy sauce… all infused with the primal taste of smoke and flame that takes you back to your prehistoric roots? This is the food of the earth and the elements, fit for caveman and king alike.
And in America, it’s a big ole deal. The rivalry between competing barbecue behemoths is kinda like what you’d see between Liverpool and Man Utd, AFL and NFL, Tehran and Riyadh.
Now that we regrettably have to do stuff we love, we can make maps of America’s barbecue mastery. So, this is the barbecue landscape as we currently see it. Red denotes our barbecue heaven, where it’s both abundant and awesome. Orange means some really good barbecue is available but it’s not traditional barbecue heartland. Yellow is for those with decent barbecue in places, or some funky sauce ideas going on. White is for despair.
It’s pure war between the red factions (especially the four below), ’cause a reputation as a warlord of barbecue opens up more doors than a brothel-house porter. This stuff is serious so don’t turn up expecting song and dance. Smoke-masters don’t play, they’re as focused on perfection as a Chinese gymnast. Every plate counts and reputations are easily lost. To them, barbecue is an outcome, not a process. Meat isn’t barbecued, it’s smoked until it transforms into barbecue. Their goal lies in the straplines mouthed by many a Zidanesque smokesman:
Don’t need no teeth to eat mah beef.
It takes dedication, repetition and artistry to master their craft. The fire must smoulder gradually without flaring and the meat must be fully enveloped in smoke but untouched by the flame. They have to have ninja-level butchering and be able to produce sauces and rubs in line with whichever style of barbecue they identify with. But they also have to try give it a unique twist they hope might, one day, become their signature flavour.
Yeah… whacking a beef patty and sausages on the grill, it ain’t.
Finally, let’s not forget that barbecue is a genuine source of regional identity for many people – like the many takes on whiskey are for the Scottish regions, or daal for the Indian regions. It’s a unifying force that binds people of all ethnic and class backgrounds. We’ll save the history for another day, but barbecue was formed at the crossroads of African, European and native-American cultures. Former world champion of team barbecue, Nathan Myhrvold, puts it like this:
Barbecue’s interesting, because it’s one of these cult foods like chili or bouillabaisse. Various parts of the world will have a cult food that people get enormously attached to – there’s tremendous traditions; there’s secrecy.
The Big Four
North Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City and of course Texas, baby.
These four are the most popular and inspire the most imitations within America and beyond. By analogy to wine, they’re like the Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and Tuscany of their field (and really, the Loire, Rhone, Piedmont, Mosel and Rioja too).
The spiritual home of pulled pork. It’s as famed for its accompanying sauce as it is for the shredded strands of smoky pig meat themselves. The sauce was conceived to cut through the pork’s fattiness with that astringent, vinegar-based tang that lands it a place at most serious barbecue tables across America. In the eastern part of the state it’s kept to a mix of cider vinegar, pepper flakes and salt but on the western side, it might also include a light dash of tomato.
On a side-note, this is also the place for the intrepid traveller to join a Pig Picking – the smoking of a whole hog. Special guests get the bits of fire-crisped skin known as the brownies. A Great place to spend your last day on earth. The sociologist most known for work on the contemporary American South, John Shelton Reed, does a good job of explaining the importance of barbecue in North Carolina and beyond:
Barbecue is the third rail of North Carolina politics. […] Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Europe’s wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes.
Elvis and the assassination of Martin Luther King both raised important questions in this city but arguably none as urgent as the ongoing dilemma of dry or wet? In Memphis you can either have your pork ribs crusted in a dry, spicy rub (this is the traditional style – check out Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous if you want the sensation of tasting something from your lips to your toes) or you can have them thrice glazed in a tomato-based sauce (before, during and after cooking).
If you’re all ribbed out, get the hell out of Memphis. But if you can’t, you can opt for slices of pork shoulder in a bun (try it at Leonard’s). Plus they love their coleslaw. Steve Raichlen, a regular contributor to BBQ USA, adds:
To say that the citizens of Memphis are obsessed with barbecue would be a little like observing that the Mississippi River has water in it.
With over 100 BBQ restaurants across its metropolitan area, at my pace you’ll need a long weekend to complete the circuit. It’s known for its thick, sweet tomato and molasses-based sauce typically offered at the table. This is easily the most commonly (and poorly) imitated barbecue sauce in America. Pork and beef (as well as a notable variety of other meats) are honoured in equal measure. You’ll also find other local sauces revered by underground connoisseurs, such as Arthur Bryant’s mustard based product and Gates’ hot one centred on cumin and celery salt.
While you’re in Kansas City, jump over to St Louis and get yourself to Pappy’s Smokehouse. I’ll never find a better pork rib in my life. Except, I probably will eventually, ’cause I’m that committed. Carolyn Wells, Executive Director of the Kansas City Barbecue Society (the world’s biggest organisation for barbecue enthusiasts) makes an extra, often overlooked point:
Kansas City’s the melting pot of barbecue, where it all comes together.
Texas Forever, the luminary Tim Riggins once (or twenty times?) said. Barbecue is as inseparable from Texas as beer is from that part of France we call Belgium. Since the cowboy days, cattle ranching has been a feature of the Texan economy so the prize meats here are beef, beef and beef. You’ll find it in brisket form (slow smoked for up to 24 hours), as a smoked shoulder, or as what the locals like to call Brontasaurus Bones (giant beef ribs). And of course, there’s barbacoa (that’s, er, cow’s head I’m afraid) and the spicy, smoked beef sausages known as ‘hot guts’.
Now, you can get all this with a sauce based on tomato, meat drippings and some brown sugar, but a real Texan takes his barbecue dry. The modern hub of Texan BBQ is Austin, where musician-turned-pitmaster Aaron Franklin has made the cow holy to more than just Hindus. And a local taxi driver put it best:
Turnin’ down Texas barbecue is like spittin’ on the flag.
So there you have it. If you take just one thing away from all this, make it… so, actually, you need to take four things away.
If You Want More
Why not check out our state-by-state A-to-W of American BBQ outside the big four. This one’s for the fellow nerds only.
If You Want More-More
Compliment your on-the-ground munching with Smokestack Lightning, a tantalising book recounting one man’s spontaneous drive around America in search of the Greatest barbecue of all, complete with photographs that are plain sadistic to anyone not living within touching distance of a barbecue joint. Beware, it’s the kind of read that makes you question whether you really need to turn up at the office on Monday.
Feeding The Fire is probably the finest choice for barbecue beginners and might just be the most complete cookbook in the category, period. British readers wondering how to take the basics of barbecue and fuse them into varied dinner-party fare will love the Pitt Cue Co.cookbook, from London’s best barbecue spot. And Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto is light on recipes but perfect for those interested in the more technical steps to the barbecuing process.
Finish off with some drool-inducing, informative viewing on competition-level barbecue (probably the highest quality barbecue of all) by watching American Smoke: A Barbecue Documentary. Keep your mouth closed as you watch, or just bring a bib.