“Southern barbecue is the closet thing we have in the U.S. to Europe’s wine or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes.”
—John Shelton Reed
©2013 Chris Terrell
Barbecue begins with the Spanish conquest of the New World. When Spanish explorers moved into the Caribbean, they discovered native islanders roasting fish and game on a framework of sticks they called “barbacoa.” The word “barbecue,” which first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary around 1661, initially referred to such a framework and only later did the word “barbecue” come to mean the act of grilling or roasting meat on dry heat.
The surest way in which to tell the difference between a Southerner and a Yankee is how the word barbecue is used. Up North, “barbecue” is a verb, as in “let’s go barbecue some chicken on the grill.” In the South, however, it’s a noun, as in “let’s go get us some barbecue after church… .” See the difference?
In the South, the differences between regional barbecues can be found mostly in the sauce, and to a lesser extent the type of meat used. The barbecue of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee is almost always served with a sweet tomato-based sauce. The sauce in South Carolina is mustard-based. And the sauce of Eastern North Carolina is the simplest—a concoction consisting of only vinegar and spices. Nary a tomato to be found! Alabama is also known for its distinctive white sauce made of mayonnaise and vinegar and originating in northern Alabama. It is used predominantly on chicken.
Most of the South uses pork as the meat-base for barbecue. Texas, however, relies heavily on beef brisket, though you can find barbecue made with sausage or goat, because of Texas’s German and Mexican heritage. And in Western Kentucky, mutton predominates. A popular item in North Carolina and Memphis is the pulled-pork sandwich served on a bun and often topped with coleslaw. Pulled pork is prepared by shredding the pork after it has been barbecued.
Of all the various permutations of barbecue sauce I've tasted, the best will always be that of Eastern North Carolina. And for me, the perfect embodiment of this style of barbecue was “Midgett’s Barbecue” on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This was my first real introduction to barbecue; the best I will ever eat. Let’s start first with the name. It had nothing to do with the size of the people preparing the pig. It is an old family name. The Midgetts have lived on the Outer Banks for many, many years. (Many of them have served honorably in the Coast Guard rescuing folks from the stormy Atlantic coast.)
This place was not fancy. It was small. There was a front area with about six tables. And the place was decorated with “pig” bric-a-brac (piggy banks, pig clocks, paintings of pigs, etc.) In the back was a counter, behind which lay, in all its glory, a whole hog. Someone would take your order and Mrs. Midget would then take her cleaver and furiously begin to produce BBQ. Though she would never win a Miss Congeniality contest and the sanitary rating hovered between a C- and C+, we didn’t care. The ‘cue was divine. Since moving to Georgia and later Alabama, I’ve been on a one-man mission to convince my Deep South brethren that there ain’t really nothing like Eastern North Carolina barbecue nowhere! Don’t get me wrong, Alabama has some great barbecue. My favorites here in Birmingham are: Saw’s Soul Kitchen, Johnny Ray’s (closest thing we have to N.C.-style), Dreamland (for the ribs), and Full Moon.
How does one determine whether a barbecue joint is legit? First, look at the name. Is it a family name? Most reputable barbecue joints are family-run affairs. (Because of the time it takes to make good barbecue, you don’t see a lot of chains—mass production just will not work.) What does the building look like? Is it a small, simple cinderblock building on the side of a winding country road just outside of a small town, next to a video/tanning-booth-store or a Piggly Wiggly? Also, are the tablecloths (if there are any) red-and-white checkered? And there should be at least some pig-related bric-a-brac or a pig on the sign!
The menu should not be complicated. (For years, Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, served nothing but ribs and white bread.) The sides should be straightforward: coleslaw (some of us actually put this on the sandwich!), baked beans, Brunswick stew, sometimes french fries or potato salad. Drinks will be Coke (this refers to all matter of soft drinks or “soda”) and, of course, sweet tea. Dessert will usually consist of banana pudding—maybe even pecan pie if it is a fancy barbecue “restaurant.”
Finally, a good indication of the quality of the barbecue served is the diversity of the clientele. Despite the South’s ugly past, barbecue joints and their cousins, the “meat and three,” are some of the most socially egalitarian eateries on the planet. You will find bankers and lawyers sitting next to construction workers and truck drivers. Whites will be sitting next to Blacks and Hispanics. They are all drawn to the same love: barbecue.