In the South, colloquialisms abound. For example, all sodas are called “Cokes.” If your friend heads into a store to buy a “Coke,” he may come back with a Dr. Pepper, a Sprite, or a Coke. And if a Southern lady says “bless her heart,” it is not a compliment. It usually comes at the end of a veiled insult. “Did you see that dress she’s wearing? Bless her heart.” Ouch.
Similarly, barbeque in the South is not cooking hamburgers and hot dogs out on the grill. Barbeque (BBQ) is a cooking method using the indirect heat imparted by the smoke of a wood-burning fire. BBQ takes hours—and years of practice—to get it right. In the South, BBQ has become more than just a style of cooking. It is a subculture with wide variations between regions and fierce rivalry for titles at BBQ competitions.
While BBQ exists outside of the South, it originated in the southeast and seventy of the top 100 BBQ restaurants are in the fourteen core BBQ states. Within this region, there are four types of BBQ: Memphis, Kansas City, Carolina, and Texas.
Memphis-style BBQ consists of two dishes: ribs and pulled pork sandwiches. Ribs are served wet or dry. Dry ribs are rubbed with a seasoned dry rub before cooking; wet ribs are slathered with sauce during and after cooking. Pulled pork sandwiches are served on a hamburger bun and topped with coleslaw and BBQ sauce. Memphis BBQ sauce is ketchup-based and has a tangy flavor. Memphis hosts The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in May of each year. The Guinness Book of World Records lists it as the largest pork barbecue contest in the world. It is also regularly featured on the Food Network and the BBC. Memphis is also noted for putting pulled pork on other dishes, such as nachos and pizza.
Kansas City BBQ is sauce-based, meaning the meat is slowly cooked over a variety of woods and then mopped in sauce. The tomato-based sauces are sweet and spicy. Since more brown sugar is used in Kansas City sauce, the meat tends to burn on the edges. The burnt ends are cut off and are a popular dish in Kansas City. The area is also home to two famous BBQ competitions: one in Lenexa, Kansas and one at the American Royal. Though pork is the most common meat used in Kansas City BBQ, beef, chicken, mutton, turkey, and even fish are also used.
In North Carolina, BBQ is such a large part of its history and heritage that it has become a political issue. There are two types of BBQ in North Carolina: Lexington-style and Eastern-style. Lexington-style BBQ uses a vinegar-based red sauce that is seasoned with ketchup and spices. Only the pork shoulder of the pig is used. The red sauce is also used in place of mayonnaise to make “red slaw.” Eastern-style BBQ uses all of the pig. Its sauce is vinegar and pepper-based with no tomato used. In 2006 North Carolina House Bill 21 and North Carolina Senate Bill 47 were introduced (and ultimately defeated) in an effort to establish the Lexington Barbecue Festival as the official BBQ festival of North Carolina. In 2007 a compromise was reached granting the Lexington Barbecue Festival the title, “Official Food Festival of the Piedmont Triad Region of the State of North Carolina.” This title effectively creates a single, official BBQ for the entire state.
The fourth and final BBQ style is Texas. Texas varies from the other three styles in that the most common meat used is beef instead of pork. Texas has four distinct styles of BBQ: East, Central, South, and West. In East Texas, the beef is cooked over hickory wood to the point that it is “falling off the bone.” It is marinated in a sweet, tomato-based sauce. In Central Texas, the meat is rubbed with spices and cooked over indirect heat from pecan or oak wood. In South Texas, a thick, molasses-based sauce is used to keep the beef tender. And in West Texas, the meat is cooked over direct heat from mesquite wood, giving the beef a bitter taste. Beef ribs are often common in Texas, and brisket sandwiches are often served with pickles and onions.
BBQ has a long tradition in the South. Pre-Civil War, Southerners ate five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef. Pigs were relatively easy to care for and could even be turned out into the wild and hunted later if there was a food shortage. All parts of the pig were eaten, and pig slaughtering became a time of celebration. BBQ grew out of those gatherings. Since any part of the pig could be used for BBQ, including the cheaper cuts, Black Americans began incorporating BBQ into their diets as well. Today, you will still encounter amazing BBQ coming out of “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants that reflect the low tradition of BBQ in the South. Because BBQ has a long history for all Southerners, BBQ is a cultural icon for everyone, regardless of race, class, or sex.