A field guide to barbecue in the American South

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In the American South, 'barbecue' is a noun, and otherwise sane people come to blows about which regional version reigns supreme. For those of you unfamiliar with the subtleties of eastern versus western North Carolina-style 'cue or the difference between mesquite- and apple wood-smoked brisket, here's a quick n' dirty field guide.

Pit-cooked BBQ sign by Southern Foodways Alliance. Creative Commons ShareAlike LicencePit-cooked BBQ sign by Southern Foodways Alliance. Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

What is barbecue?

The answer to that question completely depends on where you are in the US. A quick regional rundown of America’s four main barbecue zones:

The Carolinas: in North Carolina, barbecue means succulent, slow-cooked pork. Chopped or shredded, it's drowned in a tangy vinegar sauce (eastern-style) or a sweeter, ketchup-spiked sauce (western-style). In South Carolina, the pork is doused in a yellow, mustard-based sauce. Order a sandwich, with barbecue mingling with coleslaw on a squishy white bun, or get a platter, which generally comes with slaw and hushpuppies (fried balls of cornmeal dough).

Tennessee: the city of Memphis is as beloved for its barbecue as it is for its blues music. Here, barbecue comes in two varieties: pulled pork or ribs. The pulled pork is smothered in sweet tomato-based sauce, while the ribs can be 'wet' (coated in the same sweet sauce) or 'dry' (rubbed with a herb mix). Order ribs by the rack or the half-rack, and don’t forget a side of cornbread to mop up the juices.

Texas: in cattle country, the quintessential 'cue is slow-cooked beef brisket, but nearly any kind of meat goes – chicken, sausage, ribs, even goat. Though you'll find the occasional side dish of potato salad or pinto beans, it's all about the meat here. Some of the Lone Star State's most iconic establishments serve their barbecue with nothing but slices of fluffy supermarket white bread.

Kansas City: in KC, all sorts of meat – beef, pork, chicken – is slow-smoked then smothered in the thick, sweet, tomato-based sauce you typically think of when you hear the words 'barbecue sauce'. Here, 'burnt ends' (exactly what they sound like – the burned ends of the brisket) are considered a delicacy, served alone or in a sandwich.

How to spot a great barbecue joint

Goode's BBQ in Texas by uhltank. Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Just follow three simple rules:

  1. The uglier the exterior, the better the 'cue. Some of our favorite barbecue joints inhabit former gas stations, old barns and back alley basements. Many don't even have indoor seating – plan to crowd in at the communal picnic benches with everyone else in town.
  2. Look for a trail of wood smoke curling around from the back of the restaurant. The good places will smoke their meat with real wood, not gas. Bonus points if the owner splits the wood him or herself.
  3. See a cop car or off-duty ambulance in the parking lot? Is the DA talking local politics with the ex-mayor in the back booth? Then it's probably a good place. Public servants always know the best spots. Clichéd, but true.

The country's top barbecue joints

In North Carolina, hit up the Skylight Inn (www.skylightinnbbq.com) in the sand hills town of Ayden for classic Eastern-style 'cue. Or try the sweeter sauce at Lexington Barbecue #1  (www.ibiblio.org/ch-scene/bbq/lexington.html), which locals call 'Honey Monk's' after its founder, Wayne 'Honey' Monk) in the central North Carolina town of Lexington.

You can't swing a chicken in Memphis without hitting a barbecue shop, but our money is on Payne's (www.southernbbqtrail.com) for pulled pork or Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous (www.hogsfly.com), a character-filled underground (literally) institution that serves ribs to everyone from the president to the Rolling Stones.

In Texas, top spots include Austin's massive, much-loved The Salt Lick Bar-B-Que (www.saltlickbbq.com) and the old-school Goode Company BBQ (www.goodecompany.com) in Houston, where you can order brisket, Czech sausage, duck, turkey legs and honey-smoked ham by the pound.

Kansas City boasts 100-plus barbecue joints, but Arthur Bryant's (www.arthurbryantsbbq.com) is easily the most iconic (and, locals say, it's got the best sauce).

Must-see barbecue events

'Porkfest' in North Carolina by Sheryl Long. Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence'Porkfest' in North Carolina by Sheryl Long. Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Lexington Barbecue Festival (www.barbecuefestival.com): Lexington, North Carolina, which bills itself as the 'Barbecue Capital of the World', puts on a yearly tribute to pork each October. Cheer for the pig races, see the swine-themed sand sculptures, and congratulate the winners of the Pepsi 'pig tales' story contest winners. And, of course, eat your face off.

Memphis in May (memphisinmay.org/worldchampionshipbbqcontest) the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at this annual month-long festival is the Olympics for pitmasters (barbecue cooking expert). There are categories for pork shoulder, pork rib and 'whole hog', and prizes of up to 10,000. Expect TV vans from the Food Network and dozens of international media outlets.

American Royal (www.americanroyal.com): this eight-week Kansas City livestock show and rodeo hosts the world's largest barbecue contest, The World Series of Barbecue, each October and November. More than 500 teams compete for the crown, while guests taste sauces, listen to music and ogle the piggies and cows.

Emily Matchar grew up in North Carolina and admits to consuming near-fatal levels of Memphis barbecue before she started to write travel guides for Lonely Planet. Follow her on Twitter at @EmilyMatchar.