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Barbecue in the United States

In the United States, especially the southeastern region, barbecue (also spelled barbeque or abbreviated BBQ) refers to a technique of cooking that involves cooking meat for long periods of time at low temperatures over a wood fire; often this is called pit barbecue, and the facility for cooking it is the barbecue pit. This form of cooking adds a distinctive smoky taste to the meat; barbecue sauce, while a common accompaniment, is not required for many styles.

Barbecue traditions originate from the southeastern region, where the culture is strongest, but have spread throughout the country. Often the proprietors of southern style barbecue establishments in other areas originate from the southeast. In the southeast, barbecue is more than just a style of cooking, but a subculture with wide variation between regions, and fierce rivalry for titles at barbecue competitions.

A Southern Barbecue, 1887, by Horace BradleyThe barbecue region
The origins of American barbecue date back to colonial times, with the first recorded mention in 1610, and George Washington mentions attending a "barbicue" in Alexandria, VA in 1769. As the country expanded westwards along the Gulf of Mexico and north along the Mississippi River, barbecue went with it.

The core region for barbecue is the southeastern region of the United States, an area bordered on the west by Texas and Oklahoma, on the north by Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia, on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean. While barbecue is found outside of this region, the fourteen core barbecue states contain 70 of the top 100 barbecue restaurants, and most top barbecue restaurants outside the region have their roots there.

Barbecue in its current form grew up in the South, where both black and white cooks learned to slow roast tough cuts of meat over fire pits to make them tender. This slow cooking over smoke leaves a distinctive line of red just under the surface, where the myoglobin in the meat reacts with carbon monoxide from the smoke, and imparts the smoky taste essential to barbecue.

These humble beginnings are still reflected in the many barbecue restaurants that are operated out of "hole-in-the-wall" (or "dive") locations; the rib joint is the purest expression of this. Many of these will have irregular hours, and remain open only until all of a day's ribs are sold; they may shut down for a month at a time as the proprietor goes on vacation. Despite these unusual traits, rib joints will have a fiercely loyal clientele.
The origins of barbecue tradition

The first ingredient in the barbecue tradition was the meat. Pigs came to the Americas with the Spanish explorers, and quickly turned feral. This provided the most widely used meat used in most barbecue, pork ribs, as well as the pork shoulder for pulled pork. The techniques used in barbecue are hot smoking and smoke cooking. Hot smoking is where the meat is cooked with a wood fire, over indirect heat, at temperatures between 120 and 180 F (49 and 82 C), and smoke cooking is cooking over indirect fire at higher temperatures. Unlike cold smoking, which preserves meat and takes days of exposure to the smoke, hot smoking and smoke cooking are cooking processes. While much faster than cold smoking, the cooking process still takes hours, as many as 18. The long, slow cooking process leaves the meat tender and juicy.

The next ingredient in barbecue is the wood. Since the wood smoke flavors the food, not just any wood will do; different woods impart different flavors, so availability of various woods for smoking influences the taste of the barbecue in different regions.
Hard woods such as hickory, mesquite, pecan and the different varieties of oak impart a strong smoke flavor.

Maple, alder, and fruit woods such as apple, pear, and cherry impart a milder, sweeter taste.

Stronger flavored woods are used for pork and beef, while the lighter flavored woods are used for fish and poultry. More exotic smoke generating ingredients can be found in some recipes; grapevine adds a sweet flavor, and sassafras, a major flavor in root beer adds its distinctive taste to the smoke.

The last, and in many cases optional, ingredient is the barbecue sauce. There are no constants, with sauces running the gamut from clear, peppered vinegars to thick, sweet, tomato and molasses sauces, from mild to painfully spicy. The sauce may be used as a marinade before cooking, applied during cooking, after cooking, or used as a table sauce. An alternate form of barbecue sauce is the dry rub, a mixture of salt and spices applied to the meat before cooking.

Main regional styles
While the wide variety of barbecue styles makes it difficult to break barbecue styles down into regions, there are four major styles commonly referenced (though many sources list more). The four major styles are Memphis and Carolina, which rely on pork and represent the oldest styles, and Kansas City and Texas, which utilize beef as well as pork, and represent the later evolution of the original deep south barbecue.[10] Pork is the most common meat used, followed by beef and veal, often with chicken or turkey in addition. Lamb and mutton are found in some areas, such as Owensboro, Kentucky, and some regions will add other meats.

Memphis barbecue is primarily two different dishes: ribs, which come "wet" and "dry", and barbecue sandwiches. Wet ribs are brushed with sauce before and after cooking, and dry ribs are seasoned with a dry rub. Barbecue sandwiches in Memphis, are typically chopped pork served on a simple bun and topped with cole slaw. Of note is the willingness of the Memphians to put this chopped pork on many non-traditional dishes, such as pizza or nachos.

Carolina barbecue is usually pork, served pulled, shredded, or chopped, but sometimes sliced. It may also be rubbed with a spice mixture before smoking and mopped with a spice and vinegar liquid during smoking.

Two styles predominate in different parts of North Carolina. Eastern North Carolina barbecue is made by the use of the "whole hog", where the entire pig is barbecued and the meat from all parts of the pig are chopped and mixed together. Eastern North Carolina barbecue also uses a thin sauce made of spices and vinegar. Western North Carolina barbecue is made from only the pork shoulder, which is mainly dark meat, and uses a thicker sweetened tomato-based sauce. Western North Carolina barbecue is also known as Lexington barbecue, after the town of Lexington, North Carolina, home to many barbecue restaurants and a large barbecue festival, the Lexington Barbecue Festival.

South Carolina has three regional styles. In western parts of the state, along the Savannah River, a peppery tomato or ketchup-based sauce is common. In the central part of the state (the Midlands), barbecue is characterized by the use of a yellow "Carolina Gold" sauce, made from a mixture of yellow mustard, vinegar, brown sugar and other spices. In the coastal "Pee Dee" region, they use the whole hog, and use a spicy, watery, vinegar-and-pepper sauce. In Piedmont area of the state shoulders, hams, or Boston butts are used.

Kansas City
Kansas City has a wide variety in meat, but the signature ingredient is the sauce. The meat is smoked with a dry rub, and the sauce served as a table sauce. Kansas City style sauce is thick and sweet (with significant exceptions such as Arthur Bryant's, which is significantly less sweet than others in the region, and Gates, notably spicier than other KC-style sauces) based on tomatoes and molasses. This is perhaps the most widespread of sauces, with the Kansas City recipe K. C. Masterpiece being a top-selling brand.

There are four generally recognized regional styles of barbecue in Texas: East Texas style, which is essentially Southern barbecue and is also found in many urban areas; Central Texas "meat market style," which originated in the butcher shops of German and Czech immigrants to the region; West Texas "cowboy style," which involves direct cooking over mesquite and uses goat and mutton as well as beef; and South Texas barbacoa, in which the head of a cow is cooked (originally underground).

Other regions

The original use of buried cooking in barbecue pits in North America was done by the Native Americans for thousands of years, including by the tribes of California. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries eras, when the territory became Spanish Las Californias and then Mexican Alta California, the Missions and ranchos of California had large cattle herds for hides and tallow use and export. At the end of the culling and leather tanning season large pit barbecues cooked the remaining meat. In the early days of California statehood after 1850 the Californios continued the outdoor cooking tradition for fiestas.

In California a well known barbecue dish is grilled tri-tip beef rump, sometimes cut into steaks. The Santa Maria Style BBQ, originally from the Central Coast of California, uses a portable 'towed' trailer version frequently seen at Farmers markets.

The cooking customs of the indigenous peoples of Polynesia became the traditional Hawaiian Luau of the Native Hawaiians. It was brought to international attention by 20th century tourism to the islands.

Other states
Other regions of the core barbecue states tend to draw their influence from the neighboring styles, and often will draw from more than one region. Oklahoma barbecue, for example, combines elements of Texas, Kansas City, and Memphis barbecue adds its own unique elements, such as smoked bologna sausage. The state of Kentucky is unusual in its barbecue cooking, in that the preferred meat is mutton. Southern barbecue is available outside of the core states; while far less common, the variety can be even greater. With no local tradition to draw on, these restaurants often bring together eclectic mixes of things such as Carolina pulled pork and Texas brisket on the same menu, or add in some original creations or elements of other types of cuisines.

In nearly all cases, barbecue is very much a localized food. People tend to find and stick with favorite barbecue restaurants in their area. Small-scale, local barbecue restaurants that develop local followings tend to hold their own against the bigger chain operations that exist. Examples of these localized restaurants include stalwarts like Peeble's Barbecue in Auburndale, Florida, which has been a local landmark for more than 50 years, as well as a Winter Haven Barbecue restaurant called Brock's Smoke Hut, which is going strong on a comparatively younger six-year history.

Nationally and regionally sanctioned barbecue competitions occur. State organizations like the Florida Bar B Que Association often list competitions taking place throughout any given year. Visitors are welcome to visit these contests, and many of them hold judging classes where it is possible to become a certified barbecue judge on site.

There are hundreds of barbecue competitions across the region every year, from small local affairs to large festivals that draw from all over the region. Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest may be the largest, and there is even a contest dedicated to sauces, the Diddy Wa Diddy National Barbecue Sauce Contest. The non-profit Kansas City Barbeque Society, or KCBS, sanctions over 300 barbecue contests per year, in 44 different states. Despite the "Kansas City" name, the KCBS judges all styles of barbecue, which is broken down into classes for ribs, brisket, pork, and chicken. In addition to sponsoring competitions, the KCBS offers training and certification for barbecue judges.

Competition is not limited to professional barbecue teams, though many do compete. Amateur competitors with home-built equipment can be competitive, and even win world championships. Prizes range from trophies to US$10,000 in prize money for first place at some large competitions. The amateur teams run the range from blue collar workers to doctors. Competitions generally start Friday evening, with the meat smoking all night long, and judging happens around noon on Saturday. Competitors sleep on site so they can tend their fires, often staying up in shifts to keep a constant watch on the smoker. Competitors may sleep in their cars, or bring large campers, towing multi-ton, trailer mounted commercial smokers.

KCBS sanctioned competitions are judged based on taste, tenderness, and appearance of the meat, with taste being worth about half of the overall score. Each competitor provides six portions of each item for the judges, and the entries are submitted in a double blind fashion so they remain anonymous. Taste is the most important attribute, followed by tenderness and then appearance, each ranked on a scale of one to nine. Six judges score each entry, and the low score is discarded and the remaining scores are weighted and totaled to produce the rankings. In the case of a tie, the highest score in taste, then tenderness, then appearance, will be used to break the tie; if that is not sufficient, the low score dropped earlier will be used. Any remaining ties will be broken by a computerized coin toss.

List of National and Regional Barbecue Associations

  • National Barbecue Association - Founded in 1992, this national barbecue organization provides the barbecue related industry and enthusiasts with a visionary, beneficial, and responsive association.

  • Florida BBQ Association - This is the State of Florida's official barbecue association. Here, you'll find a list of regional and national competitions, local Florida barbecue restaurant links, and more.

List of notable barbecue competitions

  • International Bar-B-Q Festival, Owensboro, Kentucky, estimated attendance 85,000.

  • World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest at the Memphis in May festival, Memphis, Tennessee, is listed as the world's largest pork barbecue contest by the Guinness Book of World Records.

  • Slosheye Trail Big Pig Jig, or Big Pig Jig, held in Vienna, Georgia, is the official state competition for the state of Georgia.

  • American Royal, held in Kansas City, Missouri, attracts over 70,000 visitors and features 450 teams competing in the barbecue competition.

  • Lexington Barbecue Festival, held in Lexington, North Carolina, attracts as many as 150,000 visitors.

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