America's love of slow-cooking meat until it's fork-tender started not long after the first settlers arrived. Pork was widely available, thanks to a huge population of feral pigs, so much of American barbecue culture focuses on pork - especially in Memphis and North Carolina. But let's not forget Hawaii and the whole hog luau.
In Texas and Kansas City, beef gets the starring role, and throughout the country, sauces are distinctly regional in their bases, including tomato (Kansas City); vinegar (Memphis, although generally with a solid mix of tomato as well); mustard (South Carolina); and mayonnaise (Alabama). Robert Jr., serves up some 'cue at Memphis' famed Rendezvous. — Photo courtesy of Lisa Buser
Memphis: All is Swine
Elvis isn't the only king in Memphis, where pork barbecue reigns as the deep south's favorite style of 'cue. Pork shoulders and racks of pork ribs are slow-roasted - usually about 13 hours - to produce succulent swine that's pulled or chopped for sandwiches or served up in full and half racks with cole slaw, beans, and other sides. Our favorite pulled pork sandwich is at Payne's, a real hole-in-the wall that's worth discovery. You'll need two hands and a lot of napkins for a pulled pork sandwich from Payne's — Photo courtesy of Stephanie Jones
The kings of Memphis barbecue are famous for putting that pulled pork on just about everything - from the giant plate of pulled pork nachos found at Central BBQ and the Rendezvous to Coletta's barbecue pizza, a fave of Elvis's. Ribs come wet or dry, the dry referring to the spices rubbed into the meat before cooking, and finished off with a choice of sauces by the diner, wet means the ribs are doused in sauce throughout the cooking. Memphis' annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, held every May, is referred to unofficially as the Superbowl of Swine.
Texas: Beef . . . it's what's for barbecue
When in Texas, say howdy to brisket and other beef slow-cooked over mesquite, oak, or pecan – and get ready for a roundup of tastes throughout the state. West Texas is all about direct heat cooking over mesquite, and a variety of meats beyond beef - goat, for one - are part of fare. In Central Texas, places like Smitty's serve up plates with German and Czech influences - think sausage and potato salad - and meats are generally ordered and served by the pound, and come on wax paper.
In East Texas, both pork and beef seem to get equal play, and the meat is generally chopped instead of sliced, but there's no hard and fast rule to that. Central Texas barbecue from a Pearland, TX restaurant. — Photo courtesy of Zach Garner beans get more attention as a side than cole slaw, and plenty of peppers can be found in the sauces, which are thick and tomato based.
Kansas City: Burnt ends, sweet sauce
Kansas City BBQ is all about the sauce: it's thick, sweet, often tangy, and concocted of tomatoes, molasses and whatever else the pitmaster likes best. Name your meat, and you'll find it in KC, where the burnt ends are the really big deal - the flavorful, pointy ends of cooked brisket that are charred on at least one side, and served up with loads of sauce and sometimes as a sandwich. Gates and Arthur Bryant's are the two most famous joints in town, with fast service and equally delicious offerings. Fiorella's Jack Stack is perhaps the most lush barbecue spot in all America, with a delicious crown prime beef rib that's worth the price tag. FIorella's Jack Stack BBQ — Photo courtesy of Michele Hubacek
North Carolina: Whole hog, or shoulder?
There's a divide in North Carolina; the eastern part is where the entire pig is slow-cooked - and meat from all parts are chopped and mixed together. Easterners prefer a thin and spicy vinegar sauce for their plates of mixed parts. Bubba's is one spot where traditional eastern Carolina 'cue can be found. In the western part of the state, it's the shoulder only, thank you very much - and the sauce, while also vinegar based, includes more tomatoes and is thicker. Lexington, NC is home to a giant barbecue festival. Carolina BBQ is the real deal — Photo courtesy of Southern Foodways Alliance
South Carolina: Only State with 4 Profiles
A visit to South Carolina will satisfy any barbecue craving as it's the only state to include four barbecue sauces in its regional offerings. The Palmetto State is also the birthplace of barbecue in the U.S., so you know you'll be savoring the real deal. Largely settled by German families, it didn't take long for mustard sauce to become the most strongly associated profile of the four sauces found in the state.
You'll also find heavy tomato-based sauce here, the US's most common sauce profile. Meanwhile, the vinegar and pepper flavor is popular on the coastal plains. It was that spicy sauce which evolved into a light tomato profile (basically spicy vinegar sauce with ketchup added), mostly enjoyed in the upper coastal plain.