The Regions of Barbecue

Barbecue By Region

Barbecue is a cherished example of the cultural heritage of the South to most Southerners, but within the region, debate as to the nature of barbecue rages on. While barbecue-loving Southerners agree that the "Northern" definition of barbecue-- a cook-out in the back-yard-- is ludicrous, barbecue aficionados also like to argue about what constitutes true Southern barbecue. State by state, and even town by town, no method is exactly alike. For the purposes of this paper, the one non-debatable component of barbecue is pork, and the South is bounded by the parameters of the "barbecue belt" (see map). With apologies to the dedicated barbecue chefs of Owensboro and southwestern Texas, Kentucky's misbegotten notion of mutton, and the beef and mesquite of Texas simply do not qualify as barbecue, and these regions will not be closely examined here.

Why do the regional differences in pig-roasting merit attention? Barbecue is emblematic of a lot of things in the South-- despite intra-regional differences, barbecue is barbecue all over the Southern United States. We may argue about which kind is the best barbecue, but very few people assert that the different types are not part of a vital (and delicious) Southern tradition. Despite (in John Egerton's words) the Americanization of Dixie, the South has maintained a distinct regional flavor that makes it special-- different from any other part of the United States. In tracing the differences between the different types of pork barbecue, we demonstrate one example of how, despite geographical disparities, encroaching national homogeneity, and bitter intra-regional disputes, the South continues to cherish those parts of itself which make it peculiarly Southern.

This established, our attention turns to the differences between the many types of pork barbecue. These are many and hotly contested. Differences can be gauged by comparing cooking styles, serving methods, side dishes preferred by each camp, and (most contentious of all) sauces.

Much of the variation in barbecue methodology and saucing in Southern barbecue can be explained by its geographical migrations. After originally appearing on the East Coast, barbecue began travelling West, picking up permutations along the way. Spanish colonists spread the cooking technology (Johnson 6), but the agriculture of each region added its own twist. The simple vinegar sauces of the East Coast were supplanted by the sweet tomato sauce of Memphis and the fiery red Texas swab. In western Kentucky, mutton was substituted for pork, and the cattle ranchers of Texas used barbecue techniques for slow-cooking beef (with these innovations, southwestern Texans and western Kentuckians put themselves irrevocably outside the "barbecue belt").

There are several main regions of barbecue saucery in the South. Each region has its own secret sauces, with much intra-regional variation. This "barbecue belt" shares the same tradition of slow-cooking the meat, but diverges widely in sauces and side dishes.

Barbecue on the East Coast

In eastern North Carolina, the meat is chopped or sliced pig and the sauce is peppery vinegar. Traditional side dishes include coleslaw and hush puppies (perhaps a carry-over from the area's many seafood restaurants). These hush puppies are light and oval-shaped. The area of North Carolina west of Raleigh uses the same type of meat, but douses it in a sauce rich with vinegar and tomatoes. Western North Carolinians eat barbecue with bread and sometimes Brunswick stew, a stew made with vegetables, chicken and sometimes game.

Further south, in South Carolina and Georgia, the pig is still chopped or sliced, but it is doused in a yellow mustard-based sauce. In much of South Carolina, barbecue is served alongside light bread, coleslaw, and "hash" with rice. Hash is made of stewed organ meats. In this region, the skin of the pig is often removed and fried separately. (This delicacy should not be confused with the pre-packaged pork rinds popularized by George Bush). In Georgia, Brunswick stew often appears.

Barbecue in the Central South

As the barbecue aficionado travels further west, pork remains the meat of choice, but it is served "pulled" rather than chopped. Pulled pork is slow-cooked, shredded by hand into succulent threads of meat, then doused with sauce. The pulled pig region, centered around Memphis, Tennessee, usually serves a sweet tomato sauce flavored with pepper and molasses. Because Memphis is a port city, the creators of barbecue sauces in this area had a larger repertoire of ingredients from which to choose. Molasses was shipped up-river, and became a popular seasoning. The popularity of the "pulled" serving method has resulted in the appearance of "pulled chicken" on several chain barbecue restaurant menus. Pulled chicken is reminiscent of the Northern concept of barbecue as backyard activity, and the purist should avoid it. Barbecue joints serving Memphis style barbecue usually serve it alongside coleslaw, cornbread, and sometimes french fries. Memphis barbecue is a term that encompasses both pulled pork and slow- cooked pork ribs. This ribs are either basted with sauce or rubbed with a mixture of tangy spices before pit cooking.

In Alabama, most sauces are also red, but a bit spicier than those served in Tennessee. Pulled and chopped pork is offered, as well as slabs of ribs. In Arkansas, the sauces vary. Because the state borders Tennessee, Texas, and several other states, one can find a wide variety of barbecue styles and sauces in Arkansas. Side dishes can include baked beans, coleslaw, and potato chips. On the western side, Arkansas borders Texas, and beef barbecue is more prevalent.

After examining the many types of barbecue, it is easy to wonder, "why on earth is slow-cooked pig a Southern icon?!?!?!" Although it is different all over the South, and though it is a homely and unassuming pork product, barbecue has assumed heroic proportions in the cultural iconography of the South. One reason for this is the regional foodways endemic to the Southern United States. The pig has always been a crucial facet of the Southern diet, and a study of Southern foodways helps to explicate the importance of barbecue.

continue on to Barbecue and Southern Foodways

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