Barbecue in the United States

A Southern Barbecue, 1887, by Horace Bradley

In the United States, 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 with smoke from 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.[1]

Often the proprietors of Southern-style barbecue establishments in other areas originate from the South. In the South, 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.[1][2]

The barbecue region

The origins of American barbecue date back to colonial times, with the first recorded mention in 1672[3] and Alexandria, VA in 1769. As the country expanded westwards along the Gulf of Mexico and north along the Mississippi River, barbecue went with it.[1]

A slab of barbecued pork ribs at Oklahoma Joe's in Tulsa.

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.[1]

Barbecue in its current form grew up in the South, where 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.[2][4][5]

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.[1]

Barbecue is strongly associated with Southern cooking and culture due to its long history and evolution in the region. Indian corn cribs, predecessors to Southern barbecue, were described during the Hernando de Soto expedition in southwest Georgia, and were still around when English settlers arrived two centuries later. Early usage of the verb barbecue, derived from Spanish barbacoa, meant “to preserve (meat) by drying or slowly roasting”; the meaning became closer to that of its modern usage as a specific cooking technique by the time Georgia was colonized.[6] Today, barbecue has come to embody cultural ideals of communal recreation and faithfulness in certain areas. These ideals were historically important in farming and frontier regions throughout the South and parts of the Midwest with influences from the South.[7] As such, due to the strong cultural associations that it holds in these areas, barbecue has attained an important position in America’s culinary tradition.

Parts of the Midwest also incorporate their own styles of barbecue into their culinary traditions. For example, in Kansas City, barbecue entails a wide variety of meats, sweet and thick sauces, dry rubs, and sliced beef brisket. Kansas City barbecue is a result of the region’s history; a combination of the cooking techniques brought to the city by freed slaves and the Texas cattle drives during the late nineteenth century has led to the development of the region’s distinctive barbecue style.[8] Barbecue as a cultural tradition spread from the South and was successfully incorporated into several Midwestern regions such as western Missouri, again owing to the cultural ideals that the barbecue tradition represents and the need for locals to express those ideals. Variations of these ideals by region are reflected in the great diversity of barbecue styles and traditions within the United States.

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.[1] 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.[2][9]

A barbecue shack in Tulsa.

The next ingredient in barbecue is the wood. Since the wood smoke flavors the food, the particular type of wood influences the process; different woods impart different flavors, so availability of various woods for smoking influences the taste of the barbecue in different regions.

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 to mustard-based barbecue sauces, which themselves range 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.[10]

Barbecue has been a staple of American culture, especially Southern American culture, since colonial times. As it has emerged through the years many distinct traditions have become prevalent in the United States. The pig, the essential ingredient to any barbecue, became a fundamental part of food in the South in the 18th century because the pig requires little maintenance and is able to efficiently convert feed to meat (six times quicker than beef cattle).[11] As a result of the prevalence of hogs in the South, the pig became synonymous with Southern culture and barbecue. The origins of the pig symbol with Southern Culture began as a result of its value as an economic commodity. By 1860, hogs and southern livestock valued twice as much as the cotton crop, at a price of half a billion dollars.[11] The majority of pigs were raised by residents of the South and as a result the pigs contributed considerably to the economic well-being of many Southerners.

Pigs and barbecue were not only valuable for economic reasons but barbecue “scores of hog” were set aside for large gatherings and often used as an enticement for political rallies, church events, as well as harvest festival celebrations.[11] Barbecues have been a part of American history and tradition from as early as the first Independence Day celebration.[12] In the early years, Fourth of July was celebrated as a formal civil gathering, in which egalitarian principles were reinforced. The traditions of Independence Day moved across the country as settlers traveled to western territories. By the 19th century, the role of barbecue in public celebration and political institutions increased significantly and it became the leading practice of communal celebrations in the South as well as the Midwest.[12] The important social, political, and cultural gatherings of barbecues have spanned three centuries and its cultural significance remains important today.

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 Carolina and Memphis, which rely on pork and represent the oldest styles, and Kansas City and Texas, which use 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 (International Bar-B-Q Festival), and some regions will add other meats.[2][4]


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. It is probably the oldest form of American barbecue. The wood used is usually a hardwood such as oak or hickory.

Two styles predominate in different parts of North Carolina. Eastern North Carolina barbecue is normally 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 uses a thin sauce made of vinegar and spices (often simply cayenne pepper). Western North Carolina barbecue is made from only the pork shoulder, which is mainly dark meat, and uses a vinegar-based sauce that includes the addition of varying amounts of tomato. Western North Carolina barbecue is also known as Lexington barbecue, after the town of Lexington, North Carolina in which the style comes from, home to many barbecue restaurants and a large barbecue festival, the Lexington Barbecue Festival.[13][14]

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 the Piedmont area of the state shoulders, hams, or Boston butts are used.


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 barbecue sauce, and cole slaw. Of note is the willingness of Memphians to put this chopped pork on many non-traditional dishes, such as spaghetti, pizza or nachos.[2][4]

Kansas City

Kansas City-style barbecue

Barbecue was brought to Kansas City, Missouri by Memphian Henry Perry. Despite these origins, the Kansas City style is characterized by a wide variety in meat, particularly including beef, pork, and lamb; and a strong emphasis on the signature ingredient, the sauce and the french fries. The meat is smoked with a dry rub, and the sauce served as a table sauce. Kansas City style sauce is erroneously considered thick and sweet (the primary exemplars of Kansas City style sauces being Arthur Bryant's, which is a mustard based sauce, and Gates, notably spicier than other KC-style sauces with primary seasonings being cumin and celery salt). This error is perhaps due to the most widespread of sauces, "KC Masterpiece" being a top-selling national brand currently produced by the HV Food Products Company, a subsidiary of The Clorox Company, but with very little resemblance to authentic Kansas City style barbecue sauce.[4][10]

The main reason why barbecue became popular in Kansas City was due to the large number of immigration from the Southern states that took place right after the civil war. A large number of “African American migrants looking in the American west for opportunity and freedom from oppression...” moved to Kansas city.[15] Later, at the turn of the century more immigration took place, but from other parts of the country, mainly from Texas, brought other types of meat into Kansas City barbecue. Also, the variety of livestock in the region has allowed for a variety of different meats, in addition to pork and beef, to be used for barbecue.[16] For these reasons, Kansas City Barbecue is considered a melting pot due to the wide number of influences from all the major barbecue regions.[16]

Another reason why barbecue is so popular in Kansas City is because it has become part of the Kansas City culture. Steve Garbarino states in his article states that “Grilling and Chilling is a family affair, a business deal sealer, an after-church ritual”.[16] By this he means that barbecue has become a way of life for the people of Kansas City. Making barbecue is more than just a method of preparing food. It is a lifestyle that brings people together. Furthermore, Barbecue in Kansas City played a role in the integration of African Americans. According to Timothy Fox in his article, there were restaurant in Kansas City that were owned by African Americans and served both African Americans and Whites.[15] In addition, there were restaurants that had both African American and White waitresses.[15] For these and many other reasons, Barbecue has become a signature dish of Kansas City.


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).[17][18]

Other regions

Briquettes placed in a barbecue cooker
Briquettes placed in a barbecue cooker
Various foods being barbecued


Multiple types of barbecue styles practiced elsewhere in the South are popular in Alabama, but the state also boasts its own unique approach: white sauce barbecue. This type of barbecue is popular in north Alabama, especially in the area around Decatur. White sauce is a mayonnaise- and vinegar-based condiment used liberally as a sauce, marinade, and dressing. It varies widely in consistency.[19] The primary meat used in northern Alabama barbecue is chicken. Barbecue in eastern Alabama tends more toward the Carolinas style, with orange-colored barbecue sauces combining vinegar, mustard, and tomato. Pork is the most popular barbecue meat in east Alabama.[20]


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.[21]

The old Mexican Ranchos of California would cook tri-tip over a pit of red oak, and simply season it with salt and garlic to enhance the flavor. It was served with pinqinto beans, pico de gallo and tortillas.


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.


Barbecue in Kentucky shows two distinct traditions involving both choice of meats and preparation. In the Western portion of the state, mutton is the meat of choice as pitmasters smoke whole mutton shoulders over cinderblock pits of coals, using hickory, oak, and sometimes sassafras. This region favors a Worcestershire-based sauce, often referred to as "dip." In the South Central part of the state, "shoulder" is the choice meat. This refers to thin-sliced pork shoulder smoked over live coals for 45 minutes to an hour. It is sauced in a vinegar and pepper mix, and often served on bread.


Oklahoma's BBQ roots blend the pork barbecue traditions of the Southeastern United States (brought by Native Americans and African Americans after the Trail of Tears) as well as the Texas beef barbecue tradition.[22]

Modern Oklahoma BBQ tends to be a hybrid form. Most sauces are similar in style to those of Kansas City and Memphis but the meat selections borrow heavily from Texas (Beef Brisket, ribs and sausage are all common). Poultry is also common as well (including smoked turkeys at thanksgiving).

Commonly used smoking woods include hickory, pecan and oak (black jack and post). Mesquite is also increasingly being used.

One unique Oklahoma innovation is smoked bologna sausage,[4] which is sometimes jokingly called "Oklahoma tenderloin" or "Oklahoma primerib." [23]

St. Louis

St. Louis-style barbecue refers to various pork dishes prepared in and around the city of St. Louis, Missouri. A staple of grilling in St. Louis is the pork steak,[24] which is sliced from the shoulder of the pig.

Crispy snoots, purchased from a barbecue restaurant in Belleville, Illinois, a suburb of St. Louis.

Another item unique to the St. Louis area is crispy snoots,[25] which are cut from the nose and cheek area of the pig. This cut is prepared by removing the pig's nostrils and cooking the remaining meat until crispy. Snoots, which have a flavor similar to pork rinds, can be served in several ways, including slathered with barbecue sauce and placed on a sandwich or broken into pieces and dipped in sauce.[25]


While less prevalent than the other Southern styles, Virginia barbecue is a fair mixture of Carolina and Memphis barbecue. Originating in Hanover, Virginia in the 19th century, the traditional meat is pork (often Virginia ham) or chicken, although more gamy meals contain venison or squirrel. Unlike Carolina barbecue, the texture of meat is sweeter and finer. However, it does contain the smoky blend of Memphis barbecue. During Thomas Jefferson's tenure as ambassador to France from 1784-89, he engaged in lengthy letter correspondence with James Madison regarding the preferred game for Virginia barbecue. While Jefferson exhibited a general preference for venison, Madison insisted that smaller critters were more consistent with the smokey flavor of the sauce.[26] The key ingredients of Virginia barbecue are bourbon/wine, vinegar, peppers, corn, and a tomato-based sauce.[27]

Other states

Other regions of the core barbecue states tend to be influenced by the neighboring styles, and often will draw from more than one region. 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.[2]


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. The American Royal World Championship contest, with over 500 teams competing, is the largest in the United States. Another major contest is the Houston BBQ world championship contest in Texas. Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is another one of the largest, and there is even a contest dedicated to sauces, the Diddy Wa Diddy National Barbecue Sauce Contest.[2][10] 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.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f "A Sociology of Rib Joints" by P. D. Holley and D. E. Wright, Jr.,
  2. ^ a b c d e f g
  3. ^ It appears in 1672 in the published writings of John Lederer in the proper form, barbecue, following his travels in the American southeast in 1669-70. From The discoveries of John Lederer, in three several marches from Virginia, to the west of Carolina, and other parts of the continent: begun in March 1669 and ended in September 1670. Together with a general map of the whole territory which he traversed. Collected and translated out of Latine from his discourse and writings, by Sir William Talbot, baronet. London, Printed by J.C. for S. Heyrick, 1672.
  4. ^ a b c d e
  5. ^
  6. ^ Hollingsworth, G. D., Jr. "The Story of Barbecue." The Georgia Historical Quarterly 63.3 (1979): 391-95. JSTOR. Web. 17 Aug. 2014.
  7. ^ Smith, Steve. "The Rhetoric of Barbeque: A Southern Rite and Ritual." Studies in Popular Culture 8.1 (1985): 17-25. JSTOR. Web. 17 Aug. 2014.
  8. ^ Garbarino, Steve. "Smokin' BBQ in Kansas City." The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 16 Sept. 2011. Web. 17 Aug. 2014.
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b c
  11. ^ a b c
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ a b c Fox, Timothy J. "The Secrets in the Kansas City's Barbecue Traditions." Gateway Heritage: The Magazine Of The Missouri Historical Society 23.2 (2002): 24-27. America: History and Life with Full Text. Web. 20 Aug. 2014.
  16. ^ a b c Garbarino, Steve. "Smokin' BBQ in Kansas City." The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 16 Sept. 2011. Web. 17 Aug. 2014.
  17. ^ Walsh, Robb. Legends of Texas Barbecue. Chronicle Books, 2002.
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ [1]
  24. ^
  25. ^ a b
  26. ^ Smith, James Morton. The Republic of Letters: The Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. 1995
  27. ^ Lewis, Edna. The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations from Two Great American Cooks. Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

External links

  • Eatocracy Editors. "5@5 - Regional barbecues decoded." CNN. December 6, 2011.
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