Why Hello there, and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, where we take a closer look at some facet of food we may have brushed past while cooking on Monday, or just…whatever. Today’s post is long, LONG overdue, as I honestly assumed I had, at some point, explained it, only to realize as I went to link to it on Monday that, no, I’ve never clarified this particular topic before. What topic could I have stumbled over so nimbly? The regional styles of American barbecue, as it happens. So today, we’re going to discuss how different parts of the country make different types of slow-cooked, smoked and sauced meat! Vegetarians, I’m sorry, but we don’t have much for you.
Let’s Tend to some Tinder Before We Get Smoking
Some quick foundational ideas here: firstly, as the title implies, I’m going to be MOSTLY talking about the five major styles in America. And understand that these styles are somewhat self-sustaining by definition: they’re the styles everyone knows about…because people like me TALK about them more. There are more than 5 styles of barbecue in America. There are at least ELEVEN distinct styles, undoubtedly with more obscure ones hiding out. For instance, there’s been some discussion in food circles if Washington state has a particular style of barbecue.
To understand what defines a “style” of barbecue, we have to of course, briefly explain what barbecue IS, like Carl Sagan creating the universe to explain dust. Barbecue is the cooking of meat at relatively low temperatures, typically in a relatively sealed environment, in such a way that the smoke of the burning wood can affect the ending flavor of the meat. Barbecue also almost always includes a saucing element: a mixture of spices and liquids, used to flavor the meat after cooking, or in the last stages of cooking, often somewhat particular to the region. As opposed to “getting sauced”, which involves a different set of liquids, which CAN take place at a barbecue, but isn’t required.
Be still my drinking heart.
Also, I've had Mississippi Mud. It's fine beer. Not Amazing, but honestly, the jug is a big selling point.
Most styles, are distinguished by a couple elements: they may specialize in a specific type of meat, a particular method of smoking, particular wood FOR smoking, a particular sauce, or literally any specific facet of production. However, most styles specialize in at least 3 distinct options among these components.
So, for example, Washington has a long history with smoked salmon and other seafood, and It tends to rely on alder or apple wood for smoke in its cooking. This could very well be a ‘style’, but it’s a little too informal for many at the moment. If Washington began to use a particular sauce structure, then you’d likely see a much stronger argument starting up in various regions. (Personally, I’m discovering that I’m a pretty big fan of apple-cider based sauces, an option that works well with both pork and chicken, so I’m saying if we all started doing it, pretty soon we’d have created an entire new region of barbecue!)
Haha! What a great song reference. Probably the only one we're going to make today, so enjoy it while it lasts.
I’ll touch on a couple prominent examples at the end, but for now, I’m going to set aside the smaller regional varieties to handle the five major ones, I just wanted to establish off the bat that YES, I know I’m being reductive by talking about FIVE varieties, and I’m sure you’ll have your day sometime soon, ALABAMA. (They’re weird. I’ll DEFINITELY touch on them before we go.) Anyway, in no particular order, or rather, in the order my whims drive me, let’s tackle these titans of the cookout!
Stupid Fact: Kansas City, Kansas is the Third largest City in Kansas City.
As mind-breakingly insane as that sentence sounds, it’s apparently true. To explain: Kansas City was built on either side of the Kansas River, which serves as the boundary between Missouri and Kansas. And I’ve officially read the word “Kansas” enough that it’s just gibberish now. Anyway, this means there’s Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. And, over time, Kansas City metropolitan area grew and grew, to the point now that more people live in the metropolitan area than live in Alaska or Hawaii. Combined. However, since Kansas City proper was the center of it, that meant that as the area developed, it became more and more commercial, so the residents had to live in neighboring areas. As such, Overland Park actually ended up with around 30,000 more people in it, making it the second largest city in both Kansas as a whole, and Kansas city itself!
This is a picture TAKEN in Kansas City Missouri, but God only knows whether it's of that city, Kansas City, Kansas, or, somehow, Topeka.
None of that was relevant to the barbecue, but it’s the kind of fact that, once I read it, I couldn’t have failed to share. I’m going be bringing this up as a weird conversational ice-breaker for YEARS.
Anyway, Kansas City is one of the major types of barbecue, and is, broadly, the one with the most cultural and commercial success for an interesting reason: the sauce. Kansas City Barbecue sauce is, generally, what people around the country THINK of when they hear “barbecue sauce”. Kind of.
You know what I’m referencing: a relatively thick sauce, dark brown, spicy and sweet? That’s ‘Kansas City Barbecue Sauce’…kind of. See, no one IN Kansas City actually uses that kind of sauce, because it’s sort of a hybrid of several popular sauces among the big barbecue joints in the city. Most people used a somewhat thicker, tomato based sauce, but no one unified all of it. This guy over here uses tomatoes, vinegar, and spices; this guy uses a lot more pepper; some places use molasses, some don’t; it goes on like this for some time. No one in Kansas City makes sauce quite like is sold under its name around the country, but they got the name, so whatcha gonna do?
Street-Race in Japan!
Kansas City is known for cooking pork, beef, and chicken, but has a particular fondness for “burnt ends”, the diced tips of beef brisket, typically sauced up and served.
Marc Cohn Beat Tupac for “Best New Artist of 1991” and I’d Almost Be Cool with It Because of “Walking in Memphis”.
Memphis is our next stop on our whirlwind tour of American eating exceptionalism, because rumor has it that the Kansas City style was actually modified from Memphis. Supposedly, the first man to sell barbecue commercially in Kansas City came from a town not far from Memphis.
There’s some similarities, of course. Memphis has a relative focus on pork as the meat of choice, both ribs and pulled, though they do cook beef and chicken. Their sauce is a tarter, tangier tomato based mixture. One particular quirk of the region is they make a rib distinction: ribs can either be served “dry” or “wet”. Dry means avoiding the sauce altogether, and just eating smoked ribs with rub, while wet ribs are basted with sauce sometimes before, after, and during cooking.
He's more sauce than man now, twisted and savory.
I don’t have a lot to say about Memphis, because it’s right on the edge of being a major style. Among barbecue enthusiasts, it’s known for being the most willing to “riff” on ideas. Like, Memphis supposedly first joined pulled pork and nachos, though that claim is pretty unsubstantiated, so Memphis is mostly useful for discussing the transition between the Carolinas and Kansas. Oh my, will you look at the time?
SWEET CAROLINE, BUM BUM BUM! GOOD TIMES NEVER FELT SO GOOD!!!
Carolina is often considered the “oldest” of the barbecue styles, for historical reasons. Barbecue is considered to have originated in the Caribbean, Florida, and Central America, and focused on the cooking of pigs. Thus, the Carolinas, being the most southern of the original colonies, were the first exposed to it. (Side fun fact: George Washington attended a barbecue, and one was held at the First Independence Day celebrations!) The Carolinas focus almost exclusively on pork for barbecue, and have 3 regional distinctions WITHIN their style. If that seems unfair, consider that other than Barbecue and Stephen Colbert, the Carolinas don’t really have much going for them.
Which, to be fair, is more than some states got.
Basically, it’s like this: Eastern North Carolina prefers whole hog barbecue. Literally smoking and cooking entire pigs, and then chopping/pulling/shredding the components together, and seasoning with a vinegar-heavy sauce. Western North Carolina uses mostly pork shoulder, and adds a little bit of tomatoes/ketchup to its sauces.
SOUTHERN Carolina (and please note that these are, of course, generalities. People in all three regions will use the styles of the others) continues its use of pork products, but supplements its vinegar sauces with mustard. Supposedly, the addition of ketchup and mustard to the sauces was the result of German immigrants in the regions supplementing the sauce. (which, if you think about it, implies that the two sets were just working on different flavors from their bratwurst back home.)
This was the best picture I could find of pulled pork in mustard sauce. Are South Carolinians camera-shy? Is this the Skunk-Ape of foodstuffs?
Now, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about pig-eatin’ barbecue regions, so let’s shake things up, and go to another pork-centric section! WOOO, diversity!
You Can Find Me in St Louis, Where The Gun Play Rang All Day
Nelly was the first rapper I was really into. I don’t apologize for that.
What I DO apologize for is giving these motherfuckers the time of day on a list about barbecue. Earlier I mentioned that Memphis is kind of on the fringe of “major barbecue styles”? Well, let me tell you, St Louis, and my apologies to Nelly, the St Lunatics, Chingy, City Spud, and the infamous Jibbs, but St Louis is only in this shit because it fucking cheated.
As is customary in disagreements with "O.G"s, I welcome their nuanced, and well-reasoned rebuttals.
Yeah, if you have to classify St Louis barbecue, it’s basically just “Let’s do what Kansas City does, but decide to make our own special rib cut for it!” The “St Louis Spareribs” is practically the ONLY reason these guys are on the list. Actually, and this pisses me off more than a little, you wanna know what makes St Louis style barbecue unique? It’s fucking GRILLED. Yeah, their barbecue is unique because IT ISN’T FUCKING BARBECUE. What makes their sauce special? No smoke! It’s like they took the fundamental rules of barbecue, and threw them in a fucking Weber grill, and cooked ribs on the ashes!
The other prominent feature of St Louis LIES are crispy snoots, which are…alright, they’re adorably named. They’re also pig noses and cheeks, cooked in like, one of 4 ways, NONE of WHICH ARE BARBECUE. (Specifically, they can be grilled, baked, fried, and deep fried. There’s actually a PATENT for a method of deep-frying them, which is…weird. Because I know you can’t copyright a recipe. Technically. As in, you cannot copyright a list of ingredients, or the steps to combine them. What you CAN copyright is illustrations or notable literary expressions. So like, if you use the same paragraph to DESCRIBE the recipe, or the recipe steps include the same flowery language, you could be in trouble. )
Where the hell are we going next?
Deep in the Heart of Texas
I’m just BEGGING to get shot this post, aren’t I? Look, as in most things, when it comes to discussing regional issues, Texas is cheating. Texas would be the 40th largest country in the world on its own, so of course it’s complicated.
The basics here are that Texas has at least 4 distinct branches of barbecue styles, but because 5 is a nice number, we like to just say “Texas” and move on.
Some important factors: Texas messes around with meat more. While Texas will MAKE barbecue chicken, pork, etc, Texas is predominantly beef country. Brisket and Sausage reign in Central Texas, while East Texas is a little more Southern-y, with chopped brisket sandwiches, and pulled pork. West Texas goes even farther, barbecuing things like Goat and Mutton over mesquite wood, while Southern Texas goes more Mexican, and does stuff like pit-smoke whole steer heads,
Rather than show you the not-so-appealing-to-mainstream-audiences cooked head in its dissolving meats, I will instead show you the head of a still living steer.
This IS a steer, right? I've never been good with cattle, but the salesman said it was top of the line.
Sauce wise, Texas actually tends to abstain. While each section has slight preference in sauces, most of them (except East) say that sauce is unnecessary, and barbecue should just be meat, smoke, and some simple spices. When they do indulge, East Texas will use hot sauce, Central Texas goes with a thinner mop sauce, (like, beef broth and spices, used to baste the meat while cooking. Think spicy au jus) West Texas…does whatever the hell it wants, while Southern Texas uses thick sauces slathered on before cooking to keep things moist.
We may dive more deeply in the Texas territories someday, but for now, we’re getting the hell outta Dodge, and touching on some smaller guys before we close this sucker.
Sweet Home, Something Something, How Many Songs Can Jon Reference?
Alright, when it comes to the shining stars of “minor” American barbecue traditions, there’s three that really need to be mentioned. The first is Hawaii, if only because, let’s be real, we tend to think of barbecue as a “white guy” thing, and it’s not. It’s a thing we took from native peoples, and then made our slaves do, until we learned it was actually fun and cool, so we started doing it. And that’s not a slam on white dudes (or dudettes) making killer barbecue, it’s just a thing worth remembering. Too often we get into these regional discussions, and ignore people like the Hawaiians who are still cooking pigs like their ancestors did 500 years ago.
Under the ever-growing encroachment of white dudes?
In a less white-guilt tone, but still disturbingly white, we have Alabama! Alabama is mostly known for focusing on chicken as its barbecue meat of choice, and for having a very vivid signifier in its distinction: White Sauce. Alabama Barbecue sauce is white. Because instead of using tomato paste or ketchup for its thickener, it uses mayonnaise. Honestly, it’s not as weird as you think. Most recipes have about equal proportions of mayo and vinegar, and it’s punched up with lemon juice and horseradish. Toss in some cayenne, black pepper, and other seasonings, and it’s kinda like a spicy ranch dressing.
In appearance, at least. Flavorwise, it's mostly lemon and punch.
The other one I want to touch on is for a more personal reason: California barbecue. Specifically, Santa Maria-style. Santa Maria style is known for being LASER focused in meat: they cook Tri-Tip. That’s it. They rub it with salt, pepper, garlic salt, and grill it over red oak. And yes, I said Grill. They don’t do it low-and-slow, though they do infuse the meat with smoke flavoring. (they’ll cook a big piece for an hour or so, instead of 4). The reason I bring it up is simple: it’s one my dad liked. He grew up about 4 hours from Santa Maria, and we always had Tri-Tip rub in the house.
The number of times I end up scampering around the house in the dead of night for things I need picture of is remarkably high.
Does it have the history and uniqueness of the other two? No. But if St Louis gets to be on the list, then I’m giving a nod to Cali, in memory of my dad. And if you don’t like it, well, there’s not much you can do, because we’re already done!
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MONDAY: JON MAKES CHICKEN SALAD WITH A TWIST, A TWIST SAIGON! DOES THAT READ? IT’S A JOKE ON MISS SAIGON. I DON’T KNOW. THAT’S A FAIRLY WELL KNOWN PLAY, BUT IT’S ALSO A MUSICAL ABOUT VIETNAM, SO IT’S NOT LIKE A LOT OF PEOPLE WENT TO SEE IT. HELL, I NEVER SAW IT.
THURSDAY: I TOOK A BUNCH OF PICTURES OF MY SMOKER, BECAUSE I WAS GOING TO TALK ABOUT HOW IT WORKS. I HAVEN’T DECIDED IF I’M STICKING WITH THAT OR NOT. I GOT DISTRACTED BY BARBECUE SAUCES.