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How Alabama Is Using Barbecue to Sell Itself to the World

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Why a tourism campaign might deepen the very meaning of barbecue in Alabama.

Kevin Pang/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

In late February, the state of Alabama's tourism department made a bold declaration: 2015, it said, will be the Year of Alabama Barbecue. The campaign pushing Alabama's barbecue legacy might have sounded like a bit of a stretch: Even a barbecue neophyte might be able to point to Memphis or Texas Hill Country as iconic homes to smoked meat, but Alabama? Not so much.

Barbecue is intensely personal and democratic. Change up the meat, the cooking style, or the sauce, and you've got your own style of barbecue. But barbecue is also a paradox, taking on identities from region to region. In Texas, barbecue means brisket. In the Carolinas, it's whole hog. Memphis has wet and dry pork ribs, and Kansas City offers a little bit of everything (plus burnt ends). In these regions, the big four, the word barbecue means something at once specific and variable.

In Alabama, barbecue means something, too. Trouble is, not many people outside the state — even barbecue obsessives — know what that is. "We really don't have an identity," says restaurateur Nick Pihakis, the younger half of the father-son duo behind Alabama-based mini-chain Jim 'N Nick's. The Year of Alabama Barbecue hopes to change that by exploring the roots and regional quirks of barbecue in the state. Its multi-pronged campaign includes a barbecue trail smartphone app, academic research into barbecue's political history, and a Hall of Fame for the restaurants that have endured the test of time. The goal isn't just to market Alabama barbecue to outsiders (though of course it is primarily that). In the end, some hope the campaign will deepen the very meaning of barbecue in Alabama.

Dreamland Bar-B-Que, Birmingham. Photo: rachelvoorhees/Flickr

Defining Alabama Barbecue

Alabama barbecue may not be as well defined as it is in Memphis or Texas, but there are a few key factors. For one, most Alabama barbecue restaurants focus on pork — specifically pulled pork from slow-cooked shoulders and butts, Pihakis says — thanks to the abundance of pig farming in the state. Carolyn Wells, executive director of the barbecue nonprofit Kansas City Barbeque Society, adds that there's a fair amount of wild game in Alabama barbecue; generally it's smoked over an open pit with hickory wood. Barbecue-stuffed baked potatoes are ubiquitous.

But another aspect of the state's barbecue identity is its lack of a coherent identity. Just as barbecue is regional within the United States, barbecue is regional within the state of Alabama. Pihakis explains that restaurants in the southeastern part of the state tend to use a mustard-based sauce, while Birmingham and its environs stick to a tomato-based sauce. Up north is where things get more interesting. Decatur legend Big Bob Gibson, open since 1925, pioneered the mayonnaise-based white sauce and pit-roasted chicken that the state now proudly claims as its own. Archibald's in Tuscaloosa is known for its ribs. And Jim 'N Nick's is exporting the Alabama barbecue with locations in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Alabama has more barbecue restaurants per capita than any other state. It's also home to 252 pro barbecue teams.

Though Alabama barbecue might not have much of a reputation among casual observers, barbecue is an undeniably big deal in-state. Brian Jones, the public relations director at the Alabama Tourism Department, claims that it has the most barbecue restaurants per capita than any other state. Alabama also has 252 professional barbecue teams, the 10th-most in the nation according to Mike McCloud at the Kansas City Barbeque Society, and it's the state with the 12th-most sanctioned barbecue contests (11). Pitmasters such as Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q have become legends on the competitive barbecue circuit.

Meanwhile, on the amateur level, the barbecue clubs found throughout the South are especially fierce in Alabama. In fact, these clubs are essential to its identity, argues Mark A. Johnson, a graduate student at the University of Alabama and author of an essay titled, "Pork Ribs & Politics: The Origins of Alabama Barbecue." Barbecue clubs have a fairly straightforward origin story: For years, Johnson writes, groups like the Montgomery Gun Club or the Alabama State Bar Association would hold club meetings catered with barbecue. Those types of meetings eventually inspired clubs dedicated solely to barbecue and community-building. "In a sparsely populated state," Johnson told Eater, "a barbecue is a way to get everyone together." And club members don't just eat: They share their own barbecue recipes and pass those on to younger generations, building entirely new regional varieties and legacies.

Plates of barbecue at Saw's, Birmingham. Photo: Addison/Eater

Alabama's Barbecue Legacy

As is true throughout the South, barbecue has a long history in Alabama. Knowledge of barbecue first spread to the state from the East Coast in the early 19th century, according to Johnson. Beyond discussion of barbecue clubs, his essay paints a matter-of-fact portrait of barbecue's stateside evolution: From its early days providing sustenance (and an excuse) for political candidates to court working-class voters, to the modern food culture that mainly takes place in restaurants and countryside roadside shacks. It traces the deepening grooves of Alabama's barbecue identity, which became pork-centric as pig farming grew in the state, then developed regional quirks — such as the white sauce of the north — as quickly as pitmasters could invent them.

The evolution of barbecue was also often influenced by the state's changing racial politics.

But the evolution of barbecue in Alabama was also often influenced by the state's changing racial politics. In the time of slavery, it was typically black men doing the cooking and white men doing the eating. During Reconstruction, a barbecue might just as easily be hosted by the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate black voters as it might be thrown by a white politician hoping to court potential black voters (however few were allowed the vote). Overall, Johnson writes of that era that "barbecues among white Alabamians became forums for celebrating white supremacy, cultivating rosy memories of the antebellum South." A century later, barbecue would play a central role in a landmark test case for the Civil Rights Acts of 1964: In the 1960s, Ollie's Barbecue in Birmingham went to the Supreme Court to argue for its right to decline sit-down service to black customers. Ollie's lost and, decades later, closed, but its history-making resistance to integration remains part of Alabama barbecue's legacy.

But Johnston argues that barbecue in Alabama has become more inclusive over the years and sometimes offered opportunity to the same people it oppressed. Since black slaves served as pitmasters in the early days, he says, they held and were best positioned to pass on the knowledge of how to do it well. In the late-19th century, institutions such as the Negro Business League of Montgomery held their own barbecues to raise membership, and barbecue also provided a ladder for black entrepreneurs in the 20th century to open businesses such as "Big Daddy" John Bishop's legendary Tuscaloosa restaurant Dreamland Cafe.

Johnson's essay ends on that note of optimism, but it doesn't hold back from discussing some of the more pernicious influences on Alabama's barbecue culture. What makes that warts-and-all approach surprising is that the essay is part of the Alabama Tourism Department's marketing campaign: It teamed with the Southern Foodways Alliance to commission a report tracing the state's barbecue history, with a particular focus on the role the cuisine has played in local politics — for the better and for the worse. "We wanted someone to look at it from an academic rather than a promotional point of view," Jones says. The ATD figured the campaign had to be a complete package if it was going to do justice to the ardor Alabamians have for barbecue.

Miss Myra's, Vestavia Hills. Photo: Addison/Eater

Barbecue as a Strong Selling Point

When the Alabama Tourism Department announced the Year of Alabama Barbecue, it made headlines across the country. Even the New York Times picked up the news, much to even the tourism bureau's surprise. After all, subject-focused marketing campaigns are typical, and none of Alabama's previous "Year Of" designations had landed in the American paper of record. But, then again, Alabama had never specifically celebrated barbecue before.

Ten years ago, Alabama Tourism director Lee Sentell came up with the idea to devote an entire year to specially focus on one topic: For the last decade, Alabama has focused on art, history, and outdoor sporting. The state has also celebrated Alabama food — twice. During the first Year of Alabama Food, the tourism bureau printed a pamphlet of the "100 Alabama dishes to eat before you die," highlighting unique local places in both cities and rural areas. It's proved popular, and is now in its fifth printing with about one million copies circulating. While Alabama's rural areas might not have historic attractions or quaint bed-and-breakfasts, Jones says, they might have a roadside barbecue shack that's worth a detour from the interstate.

But focusing on barbecue is a smart marketing strategy on a more emotional level. Jones says the ATD figured this out during the 2012 revival of the Year of Alabama Food campaign. It launched a March Madness-style bracket of barbecue restaurants which ignited passions across the state, resulting in social media engagement the likes of which the tourism office had never seen before. "It was almost like football," Jones says of the fervor. People proselytized the sauce recipes of their hometown barbecue restaurants and talked trash on competitors. "No one will ever beat out Big Bob Gibson's of Decatur, Alabama," wrote one Facebook supporter on the bracket's 2014 edition. "NO ONE!!" "Shane's Rib Shack of Huntsville give [sic] Big Bob Gibson's a run for the money!!" another Facebooker replied.

"You could tell they had an emotional pull with some of these places," Jones says. In a state known for its long history of pit-smoked meats, that's not surprising. Barbecue clubs helped shape some of Alabama's communities, and those communities in turn helped shape the wildly divergent identity of Alabama barbecue. And Johnson told Eater that part of what makes barbecue restaurants appealing is that they're "like stepping back through time." Though Alabama's legacy is younger than its competitors in Memphis or the Carolinas, it too has been passed down through generations. Pihakis of Jim ‘N Nick's points out that Archibald's Bar B.Q. started in a pit in George Archibald Sr.'s backyard more than 50 years ago.

Carolyn Wells of the Kansas City Barbeque Society has her own theories about why barbecue is so galvanizing. For one, you eat it with your hands, kicking back with friends and maybe a beer, the ultimate in comfort food. She also points out that barbecue goes a long way in bad economic times. But barbecue is also as collegial as it is competitive. "The competition family is very much a brotherhood," she says. Pitmasters like Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson's gain national laurels and travel around the country promoting their restaurants, their hometowns, and their states, but at the end of the day they're barbecuing with friends just like anybody else.

What's Next?

With just about a month under its belt, the Year of Alabama Barbecue has only just begun. Its kickoff components included the barbecue trail (similar to civil rights trail apps available in many Southern states), a road-trip recipe book from former Southern Living travel editor Annette Thompson, Johnson's essay on barbecue and politics, a website and a Facebook page, and national and regional ad buys. A photo exhibit and documentary about the state's barbecue history and iconic pitmasters will be displayed at festivals and competitions across the country, and the tourism department will make its first inductions into the Alabama barbecue Hall of Fame in May or June. And more programs will roll out as the year goes on, Jones says.

"I would venture every state has its own unique barbecue history." — Mike McCloud

Wells, of the KCBS, says that it's rare for a state-level tourism office to get involved with barbecue promotion. Even in Kansas City, it's the local government — and not the state of Missouri — promoting barbecue. "I think they're trailblazers in this area," she says. Mike McCloud, the national marketing director for the KCBS, agrees that the Year of Alabama Barbecue is on "the leading edge." McCloud describes the campaign as "a golden opportunity" for Alabama to wrest media attention from the big four barbecue regions and remind Americans that barbecue is universal. "I would venture every state has its own unique barbecue story," he says.

While Alabama is taking the opportunity to tell its story right now, McCloud also believes the Year of Alabama Barbecue campaign could have ripple effects. Like any pioneering marketing strategy, he expects to see some of elements of this campaign adopted elsewhere. "Five years from now, there might be six or seven barbecue trails in other states," he says. In other words, this celebration of Alabama's barbecue legacy just might inspire a legacy of its own.

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