From Chipped Mutton To Whole Hog, A Southern Barbecue Primer
There’s an oft-repeated assertion that the United States has four main barbecue styles: Memphis, Carolina, Kansas City, and Texas. Where this reductive notion came from I have no clue, but it’s repeated consistently by food writers tackling a barbecue feature for the first time and in such esteemed scholarly sources as Wikipedia.
Claiming America has four major barbecue styles is like saying there are four major kinds of music: rock, classical, rap, and elevator. These are indeed four categories, but within each are countless sub-varieties, and the buckets omit a lot of other notable styles.
Indeed, the South has a diverse array of barbecue styles—dozens of them, if you start delving into “micro-regional variations” like Maryland’s pit beef, chipped mutton found in just two counties in Western Kentucky, or the elusive yellow hot slaw found in a small patch straddling Northern Alabama and East Tennessee. Seeking out and exploring these nuanced differences is part of the great adventure of Southern barbecue.
Regional styles are defined by the types of meat used, the style of pits on which they are cooked, and the wood used to fire them. It includes the sauce that accompanies the meat and the dishes served alongside—recipes and techniques handed down from one cook to the next over the decades. Barbecue styles don’t respect geopolitical boundaries, especially state lines. The vinegarsauced whole hog of Eastern North Carolina, for instance, sneaks down into the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, while South Carolina’s infamous yellow mustard-based sauce can be found in a swath of territory ranging down the coast of Georgia and into Florida. (Try the ribs soaked with spicy mustard sauce at Jenkins Quality Barbecue in downtown Jacksonville for a tongue-tingling delight.)
Here’s a stab at a comprehensive regional barbecue guide, one that tries to paint the broad-brush picture of the main regional styles while also noting the many minor variations that make Southern barbecue such a culinary treasure.
Virginia barbecue doesn’t get much press these days, but the state was the birthplace of the American tradition, where the practice of pit-cooking meats took its firmest roots back in colonial days. From there it spread southward down the Appalachians into the Carolinas and Georgia, and eventually all the way out to Texas. And there is still some notable barbecue to be found in Virginia these days.
Virginia’s Southside region—the counties just below the James River—is home to a distinctive reddish-orange vinegar- and tomatobased sauce flavored with a touch of mustard. At old-school joints like King’s in Petersburg, that sauce dresses both pork and beef that’s been slow cooked over oak coals.
Further west, the Shenandoah Valley is home to a long-running barbecue chicken tradition. On just about any Saturday from April to November, you can find a fundraiser staged by a church, volunteer fire department, or Ruritan club featuring chickens split in half and cooked on racks over open charcoal-filled pits. They’re basted for hours with a vinegar-based sauce laced with a mixture of herbs and sometimes a little tomato juice—a genuine taste of Virginia.
To do the Carolinas right, you really have to address the two states together, for the barbecue styles leap right over the state line and keep on running. The Carolinas are indisputably pig territory, and the word “barbecue” here refers to a very specific thing: slow-cooked pork. (Yes, there may be chicken on the menu, but it’s always “barbecued chicken,” connoting chicken prepared in the style of barbecue.)
The first of the Carolinas’ three main styles spans Eastern North Carolina and South Carolina’s Pee Dee region (that is, the northeast quarter of the state, named for the Pee Dee River basin). This is whole hog country, where split pigs are cooked on open pits fired by shovelfuls of oak coals (or, unfortunately, by gas burners at far too many places these days). The hogs are cooked skin side up first then flipped over and finished skin side down so the meat simmers in its own juices.
Eastern-style sauce is as basic as it gets: plain vinegar laced with salt, black pepper, and lots of ground or flaked red pepper. At some legendary joints like Scott’s in Hemingway, South Carolina, they mop the pigs with that fiery sauce and let it baste right there on the pit. At others, like Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, they pull the hogs and sauce the meat on a giant cutting board while chopping it to bits with cleavers.
The region’s side dishes are as simple as the sauce: cole slaw, corn sticks (cornmeal batter cooked in long, finger-like molds), collards, and boiled potatoes.
Heading westward through North Carolina, you cross over an invisible boundary somewhere around Raleigh-Durham and enter the Piedmont barbecue region. They don’t mess around with whole hogs here, cooking just the shoulders instead. They do it on closed brick pits over hickory coals, burning logs down to embers in a separate pit and scattering them with shovels beneath the cooking shoulders. The sauce used to dress that pork isn’t all that different from the kind found in the east, but a dose of ketchup gives it a little sweetness and reddish tint.
The Piedmont region has a highly standardized barbecue vocabulary. You order your meat chopped, sliced, or “coarse chopped,” which means chopped into big chunks. (Ask for “outside brown” to get the smokier bits from the outside of the shoulder.) With a “tray” you get barbecue, slaw, and a basket of hushpuppies. Shell out another buck or two to add french fries and make it a “barbecue plate.”
Heading south down I-77 into South Carolina, you enter the Midlands barbecue region as you approach Columbia. Whole hog barbecue can be found in these parts, but most places cook shoulders or hams, and they dress it with the region’s distinctive mustard-based sauce. Bright yellow in color and sweet and tangy on the tongue, it can be quite a shock to the palates of unsuspecting barbecue travelers encountering it for the first time.
Equally baffling to visitors is the signature side dish called hash and rice. The stew originated as a way to use up the head and other leftoverparts at hog killing time, but old-style “liver and lights” hash (“lights” is an old term for the lungs) is rare these days. Most restaurants cook their hash on a stovetop with inexpensive cuts like pork shoulder. But a few traditionalists, like Cannon’s in Little Mountain, still make it in big iron kettles over a wood fire. Spooned over a pile of white rice, that hash is a rich, savory delight.
I tend to lump Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi together into “the Old Southwest,” as it was often called in the nineteenth century. Unlike the Carolinas, this region does not have a clearly-defined set of barbecue styles. Instead, there’s a sort of continuum of styles, with common elements found in the east in Georgia that shift and evolve as you move westward.
The quintessential Georgia barbecue meal is a chopped pork sandwich dressed in a tangy red sauce with a bowl of Brunswick stew alongside. That pork is from shoulders or hams cooked over oak and hickory coals, and the sauce is a red tomato-based concoction that varies greatly in sweetness, heat, and thickness from one restaurant to another.
In other parts of the country, Brunswick stew is a way to use up leftover barbecue by combining it with a bunch of vegetables in a thin tomato-laced broth—a sort of barbecue soup. In Georgia, it’s much grander: a thick, savory stew simmered for hours on end with tomato and corn until everything breaks down and merges into a single rich, consistent texture.
As you move westward into Alabama, the barbecue shares a lot of the same characteristics— the pork sauced in a red tomato-andvinegar blend, the bowls of Brunswick stew perhaps a bit thinner and soupier in texture. Ribs play a more prominent role, especially at legendary joints like Archibald’s in Northport and Dreamland in Tuscaloosa.
Some restaurants serve just ribs and sliced or chopped pork. Others offer a full slate of chicken, brisket, turkey, and smoked sausage. Sauces range from thick, ruddy tomato-based mixtures to thin, vinegary concoctions spiked with mustard and spice.
Alabama does have one barbecue feature to call its own: white mayonnaise-based barbecue sauce. For decades it could be found only in Northern Alabama in and around the town of Decatur, where the recipe was invented at Big Bob Gibson Barbecue. In recent years, that white sauce has seeped southward to places like Birmingham, and now diners across the country are discovering its delightful cool, tangy flavor—the perfect match for hickory-smoked chicken.
The state of Kentucky is justly famous for its barbecued mutton, but there’s much more to the state’s long ’cue traditions. Of the 160 restaurants Wes Berry visited when compiling The Kentucky Barbecue Book, he found only 18 that served mutton, all in a narrow band of counties stretching from Daviess (home of Owensboro, the “barbecued mutton capital of the world”) down to Christian on the Tennessee border. There they slow-smoke sheep quarters over hickory coals and serve it with what the locals call “dip”—a thin, black worcestershire-based sauce tinged with vinegar and spice. (Feel free to make a “sheep dip” joke now, if you must.)
Outside this narrow strip of territory, pork dominates the menus at most barbecue spots. In the western counties, pitmasters cook pork shoulders on concrete block pits over hickory coals, and their sauces vary from a thin mix of vinegar and chili powder to a dark, worcestershire-laced dip. Those pitmasters are also prone to taking prepared meats, like bologna, turkey breast, and “city ham” (that is, conventional wet-cured ham instead of aged country ham) and giving them a good smoking on the pits. Sliced thin and sandwiched between two griddled slices of white bread, the results are surprisingly delicious.
Then there’s “Monroe County” style, found in Monroe and four other counties in southcentral Kentucky. They take frozen boston butts (the thicker end of a pork shoulder) and use a meat saw to cut them into thin, bone-in slices. Those slices are cooked on iron grates over glowing hickory coals, flipped frequently and basted with a dip of vinegar, lard, butter, and plenty of black and cayenne pepper.
Kentucky has its own signature barbecue stew, too. Called burgoo, it’s made from a blend of meats that usually include lamb or mutton, which give it an intense, dark bite. A whole pantry of vegetables onions, carrots, peppers, corn, tomatoes, okra, limas, and even cabbage and celery—go into the pot as well. Once found only in the same strip of counties where they barbecue mutton, burgoo has now been embraced as an iconic Kentucky dish. It’s even served in white tablecloth restaurants in downtown Louisville and Lexington.
Drive the 500 miles from Memphis to Johnson City, and you’ll pass through at least three barbecue regions.
Memphis—one of the few American cities that can claim to have its own barbecue style—offers plenty of beef and chicken on its menus, but is most famous for pork and ribs. These are usually cooked not over wood butcharcoal fires, which impart a mildly smoky flavor to the meat. The pork is sliced or chopped and piled onto buns with coleslaw to make a delicious sandwich, especially when loaded up with the city’s signature tangy, reddish-brown sauce.
Not all Memphis barbecue gets sauced, though. In the 1940s, Charlie Vergos created a style of ribs cooked hot over charcoal and generously spiced with a seasoning mix borrowed from his father’s chili recipe. Memphis-style dry ribs can now be found all over the city.
Memphis also has an odd thing called barbecue spaghetti. The base for the dish—a fusion of tomato sauce and the city’s tangy barbecue sauce— is slow-cooked right in the pit then combined with thick, soft spaghetti noodles and big shreds of pork, which give it a great smoky bite.
As you head east from Memphis, you pass through counties that used to be whole hog territory but today, all but a few pitmasters have switched to shoulders. (Scott’s-Parker’s in Lexington is one of the notable whole hog holdouts.) The best still cook their pork on open pits with oak and hickory coals scattered directly underneath, giving the meat a distinctive juiciness and smoky flavor. Slaw is served on your sandwich by default in West Tennessee.
As you get into the mountainous areas to the east, barbecue joints are fewer and farther between, but there are still some distinctive spots, like Couch’s in Ooltewah (just outside Chattanooga) and the Ridgewood in Bluff City. Both feature hickory-smoked pork that’s shaved paper thin and dressed in a thick, sweet brown sauce. Keep your eye out for the elusive “hot slaw”—a seductively spicy, yellow mustard-laced coleslaw found only in a few counties in East Tennessee and Northern Alabama.
Long before a famous mouse opened a theme park in Orlando, entrepreneurial cooks set up roadside stands and started selling barbecue to sun-seeking tourists. These days, like Florida’s population in general, the state’s barbecue is more of a melting pot from all over, with Texas-style brisket and Memphis-style ribs abounding. But you can still duck into places like Shiver’s in Homestead and Shorty’s in Miami to get a taste of Old Florida-style barbecue ribs and chicken—served inexplicably at the latter in a Western-themed building complete with wagon wheels and longhorns mounted on the walls.
Texans take their barbecue very seriously, and as much as it pains this South Carolina native to admit it, there’s actually some pretty good pitcooked meat to be found down there. (Due to an apparent pork shortage, though, a lot of pitmasters have to make do with beef.)
The Central Texas mode—pioneered in the meat markets of small towns like Lockhart, Elgin, and Taylor and made hip by barbecue celebrities like Aaron Franklin of Austin—is what most people today think of as “Texas-style” barbecue. It features the “holy trinity” of slow-smoked beef brisket, sausage, and pork or beef ribs, sold by the pound, sliced to order, and piled high on brown butcher paper. A few spartan sides like pickles and sliced raw onion are standard, and the sauce (for those who don’t eschew it altogether) is typically a blend of ketchup and vinegar with a little brown sugar, a dose of chili pepper, and the key ingredient—some smoky meat drippings.
But there’s more to Texas barbecue than prime brisket. Head eastward to Houston and Beaumont and you’ll find a style descended directly from the Deep South, which flourished for decades in the city’s African American neighborhoods. That means a lot of pork—especially ribs—along with “hot link” sausages and chopped beef sandwiches swimming in sauce.
Houston in recent years has become something of a barbecue melting pot, as new pitmasters bring the Central Texas style of brisket and ribs eastward to the city, and others add touches from nearby Louisiana, like pork-and-rice sausage known as boudin and sides like dirty rice.
West of Austin in Texas Hill Country, they don’t slow smoke their meats in offset pits the way they do in Lockhart or Austin. Instead, they cook it “cowboy style”—hot and fast over direct heat from mesquite coals, which impart a sharp, earthy flavor to the meats. Once common in area restaurants, that style is now found primarily at outdoor community barbecues.
Also fading is the barbacoa tradition of South Texas, in which various meats—most notably cabeza, or whole cow heads—are slow-cooked in the ground. A dirt pit is lined with stones or bricks and a fire of mesquite started in the bottom and burned down to coals. Then the cow heads or other meats, wrapped in water-soaked burlap or aluminum foil, are layered into the pits and covered with dirt. After cooking all night, the tender, succulent meat is served in corn tortillas with onion, cilantro, and salsa. Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, Texas, is one of the last commercial holdouts to cook whole cow heads in the ground with mesquite coals, but the art is still practiced in backyards across Texas.
That swath of Southern states from Texas to Virginia is rightly called “the Barbecue Belt,” but that’s not the only place where distinctive local styles of barbecue can be found. In the nineteenth century, settlers took barbecue westward with them as far as California, and during the first half of the twentieth century African Americans seeking better opportunities during Jim Crow brought Southern-style barbecue to Northern cities as part of the Great Migration. That legacy has given way to plenty of local regional variants outside the South, including the following:
Kansas City – Kansas Citians will put just about anything on a barbecue pit—pork, chicken, ribs, sausages, even turkey—and they load up the finished meat with a generous dose of the city’s sweet, ruddy brown sauce. Kansas City was long a stockyard center, so beef plays a prominent role in the barbecue culture, especially in the form of sliced brisket and the superb local delicacy called “burnt ends.” Originally the crisp, charred edges of brisket that the countermen sliced off and tossed to customers as a free sample, burnt ends are now a first-order menu item in their own right.
Chicago – The South Side of Chicago is home to ribs cooked in big “aquarium smokers”—glass-walled cabinets that look like giant fish tanks, but with racks of ribs and other meats inside, swimming in hardwood smoke. Those ribs are served with a thick, sweet, and spicy tomato-based sauce and slices of white bread to mop it up.
St. Louis – There are two signature items you’ll find in St. Louis and few other places: snouts and pork steak. The first is, yes, the snout of the pig, but think of them more like chewy pork skins drenched in a thick brown sauce. A pork steak—a popular backyard barbecue item found in many of the city’s restaurants too—is a bone-in pork shoulder sliced about an inch thick and grilled and/or smoked over coals—a meaty, smoky delight.
Santa Maria, California – Midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles on California’s Central Coast, the area around Santa Maria has its own unique way of barbecuing beef. They start with top-block sirloin or tri-tip (a cut from the bottom sirloin), roll it in a mixture of salt, pepper and garlic powder, then grill it over a hot fire made from the local red oak. It’s traditionally served with fresh salsa, grilled french bread dipped in melted butter, a tossed green salad, and slow-cooked pinquitos, a local variety of small pink beans. It’s half steak, half barbecue, and 100 percent delicious.
The Essential Barbecue Bookshelf
Barbecue: The History of an American Institution – By Robert F. Moss
(University of Alabama Press, 2010)
The first full-length history of barbecue in the United States, this book documents the origin and evolution of barbecue from the colonial era up to the twenty-first century.
Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue – By John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed with William McKinney
(The University of North Carolina Press, 2008)
An indispensable guide to barbecue in the state of North Carolina, which is home to one of the longest continuous barbecue traditions in America. Authoritative, spirited, and opinionated (in the best way), Holy Smoke is a passionate exploration of the lore, recipes, traditions, and people who have helped shape North Carolina’s signature slow food.
Rien Fertel travels through Tennessee and the Carolinas to stay up all night cooking with whole hog pitmasters and learn their stories and secrets. While most barbecue books focus on the food—and Fertel’s does, indeed, spend ample time on the things he eats—his real subjects are the cooks themselves, and especially the questions of why they remain devoted to an arduous, low-paying trade that may well be a dying art.
(Chronicle Books, 2016)
Though nominally a cookbook and generously sprinkled with recipes, Robb Walsh goes much deeper and gives a thorough examination of the styles and history of barbecue in the Lone Star State.
North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time – By Bob Garner
This 1996 release is now a classic of barbecue writing. Garner captures the history of North Carolina barbecue and its role in life, religion, and politics. And he parses the territorial differences between Eastern-style vinegar-based and its Piedmont
Mentioned in this post: