Finally, summer has returned, so we can stop avoiding the weather and start embracing it. That means it’s only a matter of time until you and your friends are firing up your barbecue grills (safely, of course) for an exciting backyard get-together and debating what makes great barbecue. In case you don’t know anything about barbecue, here is a brief breakdown of the meats, sauces and barbecue practices from the four main barbecue regions in the U.S., so you can play the part of an expert and impress your friends.
The barbecue around Memphis is considered to be some of the best in the country. Memphis barbecue tends to focus around pork – either ribs or pulled pork – and is used for sandwiches or stacked on top of other meals like a heavy garnish. Before being slow-smoked, the meats are given a special dry rub of paprika or garlic and additional spices. After that, a light, ketchup-based barbecue sauce is brushed on.
Charlie Vergos Rendezvous, which has been in business since 1948, is one of the highest-rated barbecue destinations not just in Memphis but in the country. Part-owner John Vergos thinks the reason for his success is because of the traditional Memphis style of cooking.
“We’ve been doing it for a long time,” Vergos said. “I think the Delta region was the originator of barbecue because the general rule is that ribs and shoulders were not prime cuts. Back in the day, that’s what people were given to cook. A lot of the spices in the region were used to add flavor, and people just started cooking it over open flames … because people didn’t have elaborate stoves. I just think we have so much history and experience cooking it.”
That rich history has resulted in some great food and has spurred a heated competition with another nearby barbecue haven: Kansas City, MO.
Kansas City, MO Barbecue
Kansas City’s barbecue differs from other regions because it focuses more on sauces and a variety of meats, as opposed to the one or two meat specialties found elsewhere. The meats were readily available in large part because of the city’s historic meat-packing district.
With a variety of meats to cook, it’s no wonder Doug Worgul, Kansas City author of the barbecue novel “Thin Blue Smoke” and director of marketing for Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, feels that his region’s barbecue is the best.
“Kansas City barbecue is the best because it’s the most eclectic of all the regional styles,” Worgul said. “Kansas City didn’t invent barbecue, it just perfected it.”
The fact is any meat can be barbecue in Kansas City, as long as it’s slow-smoked at a low temperature, keeping with the city’s barbecue technique. With ingredients like molasses, brown sugar and lots of tomatoes, Kansas City barbecue sauce tends to be thick and sweet with just a hint of spice, covering the meat like a blanket.
Another reason Kansas City barbecue is so popular is because it takes the best elements from the other regions and adopts them. In fact, it’s a popular belief that Kansas City barbecue originated from Memphis. To Worgul, however, the bottom line is that Kansas City’s barbecue is the best.
“All other barbecue regions are second best,” Worgul said “behind Kansas City.”
While we should all be inclined to trust the wisdom of an accomplished author, there are still two more barbecue regions to cover first before proclaiming one as the best.
With two different takes on Carolina barbecue (Eastern vs. Western), the Carolinas boast some of the most unique and special barbecue in the country. Some even say that Carolina-style barbecue has been around longer than any other style.
Eastern Carolina barbecue is all pork, most often served shredded or pulled and almost always done by slow-smoking a whole pig in what is known as a pig-pickin’. In a pig-pickin’, the entire hog is split, or butterflied, down the middle and then smoked in large, black cylindrical pig smoker for hours. In traditional Eastern Carolina style, all parts of the pig are used, usually mixed together for sandwiches.
While the pig is cooking, Eastern Carolina barbecue sauce is liberally slathered onto the pig. The sauce, traditionally a cider-vinegar-based sauce mixed with a blend of spices like cayenne pepper, tends to be runny and a little tart but with a peppery bite to it. After the pork is done cooking, the barbecue sauce is used as a condiment.
On the other hand, Western Carolina barbecue, otherwise known as Lexington barbecue after the town of Lexington, N.C., tends to use only the pork shoulder rather than the whole hog. This smaller portion of meat absorbs more smoke and flavor. Western Carolina barbecue sauce also differs from its Eastern counterpart by including a bit of tomato and Worcestershire sauce, which makes it thicker, sweeter and saltier. While not as heavy as Kansas City or Memphis barbecue sauces, the Western Carolina sauce is certainly more savory than Eastern Carolina’s.
Pigman’s Bar-B-Que, located in the Outer Banks off the coast of North Carolina, caters to both sides of the North Carolina barbecue divide.
Lelia Boyce, who work has been working as a manager at Pigman’s for the last five-and-a-half years, knows that making the food people crave is just good business.
“Barbecue varies,” Boyce said. “Some prefer to have a tomato base. People like the different takes. We do our pork in the vinegar sauces. It’s a good complementary blend to side dishes like coleslaw and baked beans. The acidity of it pairs well.”
That special blend of vinegar and spice works so well, according to Boyce, that it’s drawing people from all over, including some states up north.
“We have people that come from the northern areas – New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island – just for our barbecue,” Boyce said. “People from all over the country even have us ship them our sauce. You just can’t find barbecue up there like this.”
Importing barbecue sauce when you live in the northern states makes sense: You don’t have access to the barbecue sanctuaries of the south. There is one state in the country, however, that has no need for importing other’s sauces. That state is Texas.
Usually, Texas barbecue has to meet one big condition to be called Texas barbecue: There must be no sauce. In the same way people keep beans out of chili, Texans believe the key to good barbecue is a nice blend of spices applied to beef, which is then slow-smoked until it’s falling off the bone – just no sauce.
Some Texas restaurants won’t even offer barbecue sauce. Others offer it as a test to see who is local and who’s a tourist.
Benny Ochoa, owner of Benny’s Texas Bar-B-Que in Cedar Creek, Texas, understands that some barbecue lovers champion Texas barbecue purity.
“I’ve heard that a lot around here, and it’s true,” Ochoa said. “Good barbecue does not need sauce. It’s the wood, the smoke that makes the difference.”
Ochoa has seen local customers shun any barbecue sauce. However, just because Texans like barbecue purity doesn’t mean he’ll give up his personal preferences.
“I actually like sauce with my barbecue,” Ochoa said. “Our sauce, though. We make it in-house from a base recipe we’ve used for a long time.”
That’s right, Ochoa won’t kick you out of Benny’s for requesting sauce. After all, the Texas barbecue practice isn’t written in stone, and Ochoa is happy to share the sauce he created and loves.
A Happy Belly
Experts may disagree, but one thing most of us can agree on is that barbecued food is delicious. Which style is best will remain a hotly debated topic – something that Vergos in Memphis finds humorous.
“I don’t see Italian restaurants fighting over cuisine,” Vergos said. “In barbecue, they’ve always got to compare, and they always have to be a little silly.”
Those comparisons in barbecue traditions are what drives the debate over the best barbecue, and that debate has resulted in even better barbecue over the decades. The best thing you can do to understand the variations more is to start your own backyard barbecue, invite your friends (tell them to bring their favorite barbecue dishes) and start debating over a great meal. Your belly will thank you for it.
Do you have strong opinions about the barbecue you love? Think one style is hands-down above the others? Let us know in the comments section below!
If you find yourself hosting a summer party with friends and family, check out our budget barbecue tips.
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