My fixation with the profound, pan-regional variations of American barbecue first kindled in 2002. I was just starting my career as a dining critic; I lived in Atlanta, and, sure, I savored a rack of ribs or a saucy pork sandwich as much as the next food enthusiast. That year, though, the Southern Foodways Alliance held its fifth-annual symposium. The theme was “Barbecue: Smoke, Sauce, and History," and its promise of hickory-perfumed meat and conversation lured me and over 200 other participants to Oxford, Mississippi, a leap in attendance for the then-fledgling event.
It was during feasts of lacquered, pit-blackened Cornish hens and hogs cooked whole in eastern North Carolina fashion — as well as the symposium's many smart, sometimes heated talks — that I realized how little I really grasped barbecue's myriad variances. Each discussion deepened my curiosity and hunger: the nuances in chopped versus pulled pork; the gradations of vinegar, chile, and ketchup in sauce variants; the fierce loyalty to beef in Texas; and the very existence of mutton barbecue in western Kentucky.
Nearly 15 years later, the glory of barbecue's diversity is a far less obscure subject. Our country's full-blown meat obsession has fueled the mania for true barbecue transformed by wood fire, smoke, expert attention, and time. Venerable institutions are revered with fresh eyes; serious new practitioners (many particularly inspired by the bovine marvels of Central Texas) work smoldering pits all over the country. It's a tradition we now relish with atomic devotion, dish-by-dish, cut-by-cut, bite-by-bite.
Our roll call of 23 dishes stands as a celebration of American barbecue in its heyday, which — happily for us — is right this moment.
In compiling to guide to essential American barbecue dishes, it was clear we needed a task force. I brainstormed the list with three veteran thinkers and travelers: Daniel Vaughn, Texas Monthly's barbecue editor and author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue; food and drink writer (and all-around expert on the culinary South) Jennifer V. Cole; and in-house ace Nick Solares, Eater NY's restaurant editor and the host of Eater's The Meat Show. We focused purely on main courses built around smoked meats; barbecue restaurant side dishes are another topic altogether.
It turns out the four of us have a collective traditionalist streak: Our choices stayed mostly centered within the heart of the country's barbecue culture, which for us encompasses not only the South in its broadest geographic definitions, but also Midwestern cities like Chicago and Kansas City. No picks in California or on the West Coast? Correct. More dishes lauded in Texas than anywhere else? Also correct. We likewise express some potentially controversial opinions, like where to find the best ribs (answer: not in Memphis).