Smoking meat over hot coals is an ancient tradition. In America, it’s a way of life. But how did barbecue become the quintessential symbol of Labor Day cook-outs, family get-togethers, and full bellies? It’s all about the process – smoking meat for hours over hot coals, letting the flavors of hickory, oak, cherry, or pecan sink slowly in, making the meat juicy and flavorful. You’ll likely need some sauce or a rub on top, and a napkin.
It all began when the Spanish arrived in the New World in the late 15th century. Here, they discovered natives using a grid of sticks over open fire to smoke meats. On the island of Barbados, the West Indies Taino people marinated foods in spices to preserve them after cooking. The Taino called this “barabicu”, which translates as “sacred fire pit”. Their methods were ideal for preserving food – and it tasted great. The Spanish noted the technique and adopted the word, which gradually morphed into today’s “barbecue”. It’s a word that is now recognized in almost any language.
The marinating and grilling method spread across a nascent America. The Europeans brought their home traditions, which slowly mixed with the regional tribes across the islands and into what became the United States. Along the Atlantic coast, it evolved to become the centerpiece of social gatherings. Because pig was the most common animal, it became the choice for most grills. By the 19th century, groups of people getting together for a barbecue became a more formalized ritual as President Andrew Jackson held get-togethers with smoked meat as a part of his electoral campaign. There was no refrigeration at the time, so the locals would use whatever livestock was available as the campaign roared into town. Sheep, turkey, goat and venison were popular choices. The marinade was often a base of vinegar, with butter and red pepper.
In the south, a unique cooking style developed by digging deep barbeque pits that worked to soften the meat by cooking it all day long. This led to the “long and slow” approach, a key part of most barbecue operations still.
Barbecue was also food of choice for cowboys. As the nation spread west, the ease of grilling meat over an open fire moved with it. With this expansion came regional changes in the type of meat and flavors, especially in cowboy locales like the Midwest and Texas. By the 1920s, however, roadside barbecue joints started to spring up all around the country. It’s arguably the first “fast food”, even the first McDonald’s sold it.
Soon, different regions developed and refined distinct flavors – and, today, a nation joyfully debates whether the best ribs are in St. Louis or Memphis, and if the yellow low country sauce is tastier than the thick, dark and sweet marinades of Kansas City. So, who is making what, and where?
Texas is all about the brisket – oak-smoked, tender, addictive brisket. From truck stops to fine-dining, every shop adds its own twist on the Texas-style sweet and tangy red sauce. Austin’s Franklin Barbecue has dominated the scene since it opened in 2009. Every day, a line winds around the East Austin location as locals and tourists alike wait for service. Downtown, Stubb’s has been a vital part of the city’s music and food scene since they came to town from Lubbock in 1985. The restaurant is a focal point for the famous music festival SXSW every March.
Just south of the state capitol, Hill Country outpost The Salt Lick is arguably some of the best in the state, with a huge outdoor seating area that stays packed every day of the week. Salt Lick is now in the Austin airport, however, so you can grab a sandwich when you land. Another Texas standout is City Market in Luling, where the brisket is salty and smoky, and the sausage is a local favorite.
Kansas City became a national barbecue player when Arthur Bryant set up shop and starting slow-cooking beef and pork more than a century ago. With a focus on molasses and hickory, the KC style is rich and decadent. Barbecue joints in the city are part of the fun: you’re likely to hear live blues while you wipe your chin at Arthur’s place or his famous competitor, Joe’s.
Memphis, Tennessee, is the rib capital of America. The dry rub is a distinctive shift from the thick, red sauces in other regions. You’ll get your sauce on the side, but likely won’t need it at The Bar-B-Que Shop, where the pork ribs fall off the bone and the dry rub is as complex as it is intense. Often dominated by paprika, this style took off in 1948 when Charles Vergo opened Rendezvous just off of Beale Street. There’s no shortage of places to try in the city, from Central BBQ to Payne’s — each working their own magical version of the pecan- and hickory-driven flavor of the city on the bluffs.
Just up the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri, it’s go-pig or go-home. Adding apple and cherry wood flavors to the mix, the city is known for some of the best pork ribs in the world. Every part of the pig is used, you’re likely to see a “crispy snoot” on some menus. Get there early if you want a bite at Pappy’s or Roper’s Ribs.
And, finally, no discussion of American barbecue is complete without the Carolinas. Known for its yellow color and vinegar base, Carolina barbeque sauce may be thin in texture but it’s mighty in flavor. Pork is the focus in Lexington, North Carolina, just outside of Charlotte, where Lexington Barbecue #1 has been slinging divine pork sandwiches with a side of slaw and a Cheerwine since 1962.
There are dozens of ways to celebrate this centuries-old American tradition. Whether you decide to take a barbecue tour around the south and midwest, or visit one of many barbecue festivals held annually around the country, you’ll marvel at the unique ways the flavors and techniques evolved.