Barbeque is older than America itself-even Washington wrote about attending a barbecue just before the Revolution. This early barbeque took place in Virginia, and it is in the South, flowing from Maryland down the seaboard and on through to West Texas, that barbeque is King.
All barbeque starts the same-long, slow cooking over low temperatures with wood smoke, creating a line of red underneath the dark exterior. There are several ways to do this-the trick, though, never changes. A good barbeque comes from slow smoking with wood burning at a low heat. That’s the only way to create truly tender, melty barbeque.
But what makes barbeque so special? What makes people go to the same small places, affectionately called “rib joints,” over and over, or what motivates them to enter contests and sweat for their pride? There’s more than just bragging rights at stake. Barbeque methods are rooted in regional custom stemming from what food, wood, and sauce ingredients were available. In the South, four major traditions have sprung up, with Memphis and Carolina style representing older, pork-based dishes, while Kansas City and Texas champion the newer, beef-based culture of the west.
Memphis style is based on pork sandwiches and rib racks, which can come wet or dry. Dry ribs are slapped with a rub, made up of a mix of spices which is usually a family secret, especially at the little rib joints. Wet ribs, however, get their flavor from a sauce applied at the beginning and end of cooking. Memphis is loud in declaring that their sauce, a thin concoction made zippy with a vinegar base and sweetened by brown sugar and a little tomato, is THE original way to sauce up ribs.
To the east are the Carolinas, where a distinction exists between the Northern and Southern, as well as greater regional variation. In North Carolina more of the entire pig is used; on the coast the animal is smoked whole, then chopped up and served with a sauce that rarely gets more complicated than seasoned vinegar. But moving to the southwest finds the sauces getting heartier, until, in central South Carolina, the locals are proud of “Carolina Gold” sauce. This world-famous concoction is made of yellow mustard, a little vinegar and brown sugar.
This is where history, need, and available meat created a divide in barbeque styles. Kansas City begins the classic “Wild West”, where pigs were hard to raise and cattle were plentiful, and where a cowboy needed a heartier meal to sustain himself. Kansas City style still uses pork but combines in beef as well. Rack ribs are the usual fare, served with a dry rub and sauce on the side. This sauce is what makes Kansas City unique-it combines a tomato-sauce base with molasses and is gooey and smoky-sweet. The flavor of Kansas City barbeque is well-known-when a bottle of “barbeque sauce” is purchased at the grocery store, it’s usually Kansas City style.
Lastly, but as they will tell you, definitely not least, is Texas style. Texas barbeque is different. It’s mostly beef, sometimes dry in the form of tender brisket, sometimes smothered with a thick tomato sauce containing flavors such as smoke, chipotle pepper, brown sugar, or even jalapeno. In the western part of the state, the cowboy legacy has brought barbeque to mean a side of beef cooked over an open mesquite fire and dipped in robust sauce, a dish almost unrecognizable as true barbeque by Eastern standards.
So who truly has the best barbeque of all? Each of the four regions will tell you their way is the only way, but within the communities some serious competition occurs for the title of “Best Barbeque in Town”. The biggest of them all, nicknamed “The World Series of Barbeque”, is the American Royal Barbeque Competition in Kansas City. Every fall thousands of cooks on more than 500 teams compete for the honor of the best barbeque in the west, placing their creations before a panel of registered Kansas City Barbeque Society members who have been barbequing for decades.
Whatever tradition someone swears by, barbeque is a fabulous American tradition that keeps growing more delicious year after year.