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.
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
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
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
Hard woods such as hickory, mesquite,
pecan and the different varieties of oak impart a strong smoke
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. 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
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
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 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
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.