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Barbecue is one of the traditional specialties of American cuisine, and there are several different styles of barbecue across the country. The region of the country that is known as the barbecue belt stretches across the southern United States, and includes the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Missouri. Kentucky and Texas are both sometimes included. The American tradition of barbecue began in the South during the colonial period as a community event and continues today as an important part of Southern culture, transcending racial and economic boundaries and bringing together various cultures.
Barbecue experts posit that the term does not refer to a cookout or the method of cooking meat on a grill, but to the meat itself (usually pork), which has been slow cooked and smoked in a barbecue pit. The slow cooking process is a reflection of the relaxed lifestyle of the rural South and is closely associated with the cultural heritage of the South. The pit masters, as they are known, spend many hours tending to the meat, ensuring that it is cooked properly and completely. This old fashioned, slow cooking method helps tough cuts of meat become tender, rather than grilling, which cooks meat quickly over high-heat coals and tends to dry it out.
There are two main aspects to the regional varieties of barbecue: meat and sauce. While pork is the meat of choice for the majority of the region, a few styles of barbecue prefer alternative meats. Pork was the preferred meat in the country because it was relatively cheap and pigs were easy to raise. Kentucky’s specialty is mutton (sheep), and Texas favors beef. Some barbecue purists go so far to say that these two regional varieties do not qualify as barbecue because they do not center on pork. The barbecue sauces used in each style vary drastically from region to region, and are made from tomato, vinegar, mustard, and even mayonnaise bases, with various spices and seasonings.
The regional differences have caused a heated debate to determine which barbecue style is best. Several cities around the South claim the title of barbecue capital of the world. Some enthusiasts would go so far to declare that Kentucky and Texas, with their preferences for meat other than pork, are not considered true barbecue. Barbecue associations and competitions have popped up around the country to taste and judge the many varieties of barbecue in the United States.
Barbecue in North Carolina concentrates on the pig, which is usually cooked whole hog style, one of the oldest barbecue techniques in the United States, likely taught to colonists by Native Americans. As the name suggests, the entire pig is placed in the smoke pit to be cooked over hardwood coals for several hours. The meat is served chopped or pulled, which is when the meat is pulled apart, breaking into small, stringy pieces.
During colonial times, pit masters used vinegar, pepper, and various spices to flavor the meat as it cooked. They did not include tomato in their seasonings because they believed it to be poisonous. This has lead to North Carolina’s vinegar-based pepper sauce, which is used primarily in the eastern part of the state. Western North Carolina, namely Lexington, serves a variation of the vinegar pepper barbecue sauce that also includes tomato sauce or ketchup.
North Carolina barbecue is often served with with a mayonnaise coleslaw and hush puppies, which are balls of deep fried cornbread. Hush puppies are a common side for seafood dishes, like catfish, but since North Carolina is a coastal state with a lot of seafood, the side has become standard for barbecue as well. The legendary history of hush puppies has it that these treats earned their name because they were tossed to the dogs of soldiers during the Civil War to keep them quiet.
South Carolina, like its northern neighbor, serves whole hog barbecue, but it is known for its variety of barbecue sauces. There are four main types of sauces in South Carolina barbecue: mustard-based, vinegar-based, thin tomato-based, and thick tomato-based. South Carolina is probably best known for the sauce known as Carolina Gold, which is a concoction made of mustard, vinegar, brown sugar, and spices, giving it a sweet and tangy flavor. This mustard-based sauce is a product of early German influences. Eastern South Carolina’s special sauce is a thin and peppery vinegar sauce, while the western part of the state serves a tomato-based pepper sauce.
A South Carolina specialty is the barbecue hash, which consists of meat stewed with onions, herbs and vinegar and served over rice.
The barbecue of Memphis, Tennessee is typically pulled pork slathered in sauce or baby back ribs, served either wet or dry (with or without sauce). The most common way of serving ribs in Memphis is the dry rub, which is a seasoning blend that coats the meat giving it a tangy and sweet flavor. Wet ribs are cooked in a thin barbecue sauce. Barbecue sauce in the Memphis style is made from a tomato and vinegar base, then sweetened with molasses. Sides that accompany Memphis-style barbecue include cornbread and coleslaw.
Kentucky is the only state whose meat of choice is mutton, rather than pork or even beef. Mutton, which is the meat of adult sheep, became a popular meal during colonial times, when the production of wool increased and more people began keeping sheep. Owensboro, Kentucky has become the capital of mutton barbecue, and has been host to the International Bar-B-Q Fest since 1979. The barbecue sauce in Kentucky is sometimes known as black sauce, and is made from a Worcestershire sauce base. Eastern Kentucky features a tomato-based sauce that is sweet and spicy.
Missouri is home to two styles of barbecue, centered in Kansas City and St. Louis. There are more barbecue restaurants in Kansas City per capita than anywhere else in the world. Kansas City barbecues a variety of meats including pulled pork, ribs, beef brisket, chicken, and turkey. The American Royal Barbecue Contest is the largest barbecue competition and is hosted in Kansas City. These meats are cooked with sweet barbecue sauce from a tomato and molasses base, which is now considered the classic American barbecue sauce. This style of barbecue sauce is thick so it stays on the meat throughout the cooking process. The specialty of Kansas City is called burnt ends, which are the extra crispy tips of cooked beef brisket.
St. Louis style barbecue features thick-cut pork steak, which comes from the pork shoulder. The pork steak is slathered with a tomato and vinegar sauce, which is thinner and less sweet than the Kansas City barbecue sauce.
With the famous cowboy culture of Texas, it’s no surprise that Texas barbecue centers on beef. Though pork ribs, sausage, and even goat and mutton are served around the state, beef brisket remains the state’s prized specialty. Served market-style, meaning without barbecue sauce on it, the brisket is slow cooked to melt the fat and make the meat extremely tender. Brisket is often served on a sandwich or by itself with sides like coleslaw, potato salad, and pinto beans.
Santa Maria’s barbecue specialty is tri-tip, the triangle shaped bottom sirloin steak that can be difficult to find out of state. This beef barbecue is seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic salt, then grilled over hot red oak coals. With this region’s Mexican influences, this dish is usually served with pinquito beans and salsa.