Barbecue is not like other cuisines. While it is certainly true that the practice of smoking meat has many analogues in almost all other cultures, barbecue as it exists in the United States, and especially in the South, is uniquely American. The word itself describes something beyond, and more profound, than a simple cooking technique or a type of restaurant. Barbecue means different things in different regions, finding disparate geographic expression. And despite the protestations of the most militant adherents to one style or the other declaring theirs the only true 'cue, it is precisely the diversity of form — and the very undulation of the meaning of the word itself — that make it as close to a national cuisine as America has.
It is precisely the diversity of form that makes barbecue as close to a national cuisine as America has.
The traditional American barbecue belt stretches from the Carolinas in the East to Texas and Missouri in the West and from Kentucky in the North down through the deep South. While state lines de-mark significant political and civic parameters, barbecue is not quite so parochial, despite the common stereotype. What we see in the Carolinas, for example, are wide swaths of a particular style — most significantly defined by the sauce used — that tend to cross states lines. The simple vinegar and pepper sauce of eastern North Carolina is also popular in the the eastern part of South Carolina. And similarly, the tomato and vinegar-based sauce of the western Lexington style bleeds into the Northwestern part of of South Carolina and indeed into Eastern Tennessee and Southern Kentucky.
Here now, a guide to the barbecue styles across America, plus where to find exemplary examples of each:
There are two principle styles in North Carolina, and both exclusively feature pork. In the Atlantic coastal region there is the appropriately named "Eastern Style," which is dominated by chopped whole hog barbecue served with a vinegar and pepper sauce. The meat from the entire carcass is chopped up and mixed together, insuring an even product. One of the most compelling aspects of this style is that the cracklin', or pig skin, is also served alongside the meat and provides both a distinct textural contrast to the tender meat and a salty punch. While wood is the traditional method of preparation, gas and even electricity are often used to cook this type of barbecue, much to the chagrin of purists.
Where to eat it: Dating back to 1947 and still proudly family owned, the Skylight Inn specializes in eastern-style whole hog. 4618 S Lee St., Ayden, NC 28513
Moving westward, we find the "Lexington" or "Piedmont" Style, named after the town which has almost 100 restaurants serving this type of barbecue. While whole hog dominates to the East, Lexington is all about pork shoulder served with a red barbecue sauce, which seemingly takes the eastern vinegar base and embellishes it with tomatoes. Of note is the "outside brown," the caramelized exterior of the shoulder. The barbecue is most often served with a coleslaw made of finely chopped cabbage, vinegar, and tomato ketchup, either as a side item on a composed plate or as topping on a pulled pork sandwich.
Where to eat it: Hill's Lexington Barbecue, which debuted in 1951, claims to be the originator of the term "Lexington" barbecue, and thus serves as classic an example of the form as you can hope to find. 4005 N Patterson Ave., Winston-Salem, NC 27105
South Carolina is best known for whole hog served with a distinctive mustard-based sauce dubbed "Carolina Gold" that originates from the region's German immigrants, who make up about eight percent of the population today. The "mustard belt" stretches from Charleston to Columbia. But other types of sauces abound from a simple vinegar to ones tinged with ketchup. In the eastern part of the state, the barbecue is largely indistinguishable from that of the eastern style of its neighbor to the North (whole hog served with a simple vinegar and pepper sauce). In the west, we find some bleed-over from the "Lexington Style" of North Carolina. And in the Southwestern part of the state, barbecue sauce with a significant ketchup component dominates. Pork is used almost exclusively throughout the region.
Where to eat it:
‣ Be warned: The famous Scott's Bar-B-Que is only open Wednesday through Saturday, so if you want to consume whole hog, plan accordingly. Also: Do be sure to ask for some barbecue pork skin, too. 2734 Hemingway Hwy., Hemingway, SC 29554
‣ Whole hog barbecue served with mustard sauce — aka "Carolina Gold" — is the specialty at Sweatman's BBQ, where it is served buffet-style along with other regional favorites like hash. 1427 Eutaw Rd., Holly Hill, SC 29059
In the eastern part of Tennessee, chopped whole hog and pork shoulder with a vinegar-based sauce are popular, and reflect the westward migration of the barbecue tradition from the Carolinas. But Tennessee barbecue is most clearly defined in Memphis; it is best known for both "dry" and "wet" pork ribs, as well as pulled pork shoulder served with a tomato-based barbecue sauce. Dry ribs are covered in a "rub" — a mix of spices and herbs — and then smoked. "Wet ribs," on the other hand, are basted during smoking and are then served doused in a tomato-based barbecue sauce. But Memphis is also known for incorporating pulled barbecue into all manner of other foods, including pizza, nachos, and even spaghetti.
Where to eat it:
‣ Representing western Tennessee whole hog cooking, Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint is keeping alive a proud barbecue tradition. 7238 Nolensville Rd., Nolensville, TN 37135
‣ It might not be the fanciest joint in town, but Payne's Bar-B-Q makes up for it by serving a world-class pulled pork sandwich. 1762 Lamar Ave., Memphis, TN 38114
Kentucky is most famous for mutton (sheep) barbecue served with "dip," a Worcestershire-based sauce popular in the western part of the state, centered around the town of Owensboro. But pork is equally significant in eastern Kentucky, where shoulder is popular. It comes served with the same vinegar-type sauce found in North Carolina and western Tennessee, again reinforcing the westward migration of barbecue culture.
Where to eat it: Representing a near-century old tradition, Old Hickory Bar-B-Q specializes in mutton barbecue. 338 Washington Ave., Owensboro, KY 42301
While St. Louis is associated with eponymous rib cut, it is not a significant part of the city's barbecue. For example Pappy's Smokehouse, arguably the city's best barbecue restaurant, specializes in baby back ribs. Pork steak served with a vinegar tomato sauce is popular locally. At the other end of the state, there's Kansas City, which can be considered to be the melting pot of barbecue because it seemingly draws on the collective tradition of other regions. Rather than focusing on a single protein as in Texas or the Carolinas, pork, beef, chicken, fish, and even beans all find their way into Kansas City pits. Burnt ends, which are double-smoked caramelized hunks of brisket, originated in Kansas City. But the city is perhaps best known for the barbecue sauce developed by Arthur Bryant in the 1920's, a thick molasses and tomato sauce similar to the Memphis style but sweeter and darker, again reiterating the city's diversity.
Where to eat it:
‣ Despite being located in Missouri, Pappy's Smokehouse bills itself as Memphis-style barbecue. But it still manages to appear intrinsic to St. Louis. 3106 Olive St., St. Louis, MO 63103
‣ In a town hardly lacking in barbecue joints with character, L.C.'s Bar-B-Q might just be the quintessential example. From the patina of the room, to the smoldering smoker, to the ethereal barbecue, L.C.'s has it all. 5800 Blue Pkwy, Kansas City, MO 64129
There are in reality several distinct styles of Texas barbecue, drawing on the diverse cultural traditions of the Lone Star State. The most iconic and best known is the Central Texas-style that originated in the German and Czech meat markets during the late 19th century. In combining Central European butchering traditions and the most readily available protein and wood — beef and post oak — this style is as primal and stripped down a form as any you will find. While the rest of the nation is busy making barbecue sauces, many places in Texas eschew it completely. Brisket is the most popular cut, followed closely by sausage, and not so closely by beef short ribs. (Pork and even lamb do make appearances on menus.) In east Texas, we find barbecue traditions closer to those of the deep South. Pork is more prevalent and so is sauce. In west and southwest Texas, one finds cowboy and Mexican-influenced barbecue. Cowboy style involves direct grilling rather than offset smoking. Beef, pork, and also chicken are popular. The Mexican tradition introduces barbacoa-style cooking to the vernacular.
Where to eat it:
‣ There is no barbecue joint more quintessential than Louie Mueller Barbecue, from the antiqued patine from decades of pit smoke to the hospitality to the world-class smoked meat. 206 W 2nd St., Taylor, TX 76574
‣ Decidedly urban and new school, Franklin Barbecue serves up what is arguably the world's best brisket. 900 E 11th St., Austin, TX 78702
Other Southern Regions
These major styles of course do not account for all barbecue; just as they themselves combine elements from other regions, so too do we find barbecue in other parts of the South echoing them, but also reflecting local traditions.
Alabama barbecue is principally focused on pork shoulder and pork ribs served with a tomato based sauce, not unlike Memphis. But the state is also the birthplace of white barbecue sauce, which contains mayonnaise and is traditionally served on chicken. Alabama's barbecue tradition is best exemplified by Big Bob Gibson in Decatur, which dates back to the 1920's.
Arkansas barbecue draws on the traditions of both Texas and the Memphis, combining beef and pork along with red sauce.
Georgia has a long and rich barbecue tradition, but paradoxically no distinct style of its own. Barbecue in Georgia tends to incorporate elements from its surrounding neighbors, with pork being the most popular meat.
Given its proximity to Kansas City, Memphis, and Texas, barbecue in Oklahoma draws on the traditions of all three. Both beef and pork are popular and just as the state lies geographically between the places that inform its barbecue, the barbecue itself straddles styles.
Barbecue outside of the South
The term barbecue is amorphous and represents different things across the nations. This survey has restricted itself to focusing on the Southern tradition of cooking meat indirectly with wood or charcoal. Barbecue in this context describes a specific cooking technique, but also a broader cultural phenomena. But ultimately, barbecue is in the eye of the beholder, and there are plenty of forms of cooking with fire that might not fulfill the definition as it exists in the South, but are none-the-less considered to be barbecue by its practitioners. Some obvious examples are Santa Clara-style barbecue and Baltimore pit beef, both of which are closer to direct grilling. In Hawaii, we find Kālua-style cooking, which shares much in common with Southern barbecue.
This story is an update to the 2014 Eater.com article The American Barbecue Style Guide: Meat, Fat, and Smoke From Sea to Shining Sea.