The Four Corners of Barbecue
Take a tour of the regional capitals of American barbecue—Memphis, North Carolina, Kansas City and Texas.
By Zanne Schmalzer for MSN City Guides
Kick-off for the 2007 super bowl of swine will be on May 17, 11 a.m., in that city of music and meat: Memphis. That’s when The Best Little Boar House in Memphis, Natural Born Grillers and the rest of the smokin’ field will compete in this year’s World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, part of the city’s Memphis in May festival.
As Memphis prepares to fire up the competition pits, MSN City Guides is taking a tour of American barbecue, offering a little background about the varying styles that arouse fierce loyalty as well as introductions to some iconic barbecue joints you won’t want to miss.
The Four Corners of Barbecue
Barbecue takes on regional flairs, and in the U.S. there are four corners of it. In Memphis, pork ribs in sweet sauce reign supreme. Carolina barbecue is almost exclusively pork, and the shredded pork sandwich for which North Carolina is famous inspires pilgrimages from near and far. In Kansas City, Mo., it’s all about diversity and mixing styles. And in Texas cattle country, where pit masters have become known for dry-rubbed, slow-smoked brisket and beef ribs, thanks largely to Texas-style cookouts at the White House during the Johnson administration.
Memphis: The Barbecue Capital of the World
You might think all the barbecue action in Memphis is at the fairgrounds at Tom Lee Park, but you’d be wrong. Outside the gates of Memphis in May a barbecue tradition awaits 365 days a year. Known around the world for a style that incorporates all the greatest barbecue traditions—wood and coal fire, direct and indirect heat, vinegar- and tomato-based sauce—Memphis has earned its moniker, barbecue capital of the world.
Credited with developing the modern dry rib rub (a remarkably accessible combination of salt, pepper, garlic, oregano, chili powder and paprika—for color and a little smoky flavor) Charlie Vergo contributed significantly to the myth of Memphis barbecue. Serving close to four tons of their celebrated pork ribs each week, the Rendezvous is the essence of this eclectic approach.
The Carolinas: The Cradle of ’Cue
Ask Jim Early, the president and CEO of the North Carolina Barbecue Society and author of “The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: From Manteo to Murphy,” how North Carolina became known as “The Cradle of ’Cue,” and he’ll spin you a yarn about a Carolina beach party on June 20, 1584, when college boys and European explorers dug a pit and threw on a whole hog. Then he’ll laugh and say, “It’s as good a lie as I have got.”
The truth—and Early knows and tells it well—lies somewhere in the confluence of cooking techniques brought to Carolina by Native Americans, European settlers, slaves and Jamaicans, among others. The result of these diverse influences: cooking meat (specifically pork) in a pit at low heat (200 to 250 degrees), very, very slowly.
Such a time-consuming process can become a hunt for flavor. As Keith Allen of Allen & Son Barbecue in Chapel Hill, N.C., describes it, “The taste that I am chasing is the best the meat has to offer.” Each morning Allen fires up his pit with whole hickory logs. Patience, he says, is what it takes to get the most out of “low-rent” cuts of meat.
Allen seasons his chopped pork with a runny, cider-vinegar-based sauce that isn’t much to look at. But when you combine its spicy kick with 300 pounds of meat, a gastronomical memory is formed. “When I taste it and that tang wakes up those taste buds, I know I did it right,” he says.
North Carolina barbecue is famously divided by an “east versus west” controversy. To the east, they typically pit-roast the whole hog, dress it with a lightly seasoned vinegar-based sauce and serve it with a white slaw. To the west, they use pork shoulder, dress it with a lightly seasoned tomato-based sauce and serve it with red slaw.
But Early says he has had enough of the feud. “It’s time to stop the war,” he says. “We want a wedding.” This fall, look for news about a North Carolina barbecue classic this fall that will both sides under one roof.
Texas: It’s All Beef—and Occasionally Goat
By now you might be considering opening your own barbecue joint. Naming your place is easier than you might think. Just follow this formula: First, signify pride in your product by using your name—Sonny’s, Pete’s, Bubba’s, Chip’s or R.J.’s. Next, get those salivary glands working with an evocative product description—Smokin’, Lip-Smackin’ or Red Hot. (Here, you might also refer to a regional style or note any awards your product has won—Championship, Award-Winning, Blue Ribbon.) Finally choose your preferred spelling—BBQ, Barbecue, Barbeque or Bar-B-Q. Don’t laugh: This worked for Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano, Texas.
Over the years, several styles of barbecue have evolved in Texas. Cooper’s, with its open pit direct-heat method exemplifies the cowboy style of Texas barbecue.
Cooper’s was founded by George Cooper. “My grandfather opened the first Cooper’s in Mason in 1953, and almost 10 years later my dad, Tommy, expanded by opening in Llano,” says Barry Cooper, president and co-owner of Go-Q (a new offshoot of the family business). Currently operated by close family friend Terry Wootan, Cooper’s Llano is chiefly famous for the distinct flavor of its beef brisket and sausages, but its pork chops and goat offerings are good sellers, too.
While Texas barbecue is primarily associated with brisket, Luke Zimmerman, chairman of the Central Texas Barbecue Association and proprietor of Ruby’s BBQ on Guadalupe, in Austin, says he would be remiss “not to mention the presence of sausage that started in the meat markets in this region.” Many of the area’s best barbecue joints started as butcher shops, and many still operate meat counters. These markets turned leftovers and scraps into smoked meats and sausages. “A lot of Czech and German immigrants came to Texas, and many of them worked in the meat markets.” Zimmerman says. “They brought their traditions with them.”
Kansas City: Where It All Comes Together
Whereas Memphis, Central Texas and North Carolina have something specific that typifies their regional styles, Kansas City has taken a different approach. The city’s embrace of diversity makes it “the melting pot of barbecue,” says Carolyn Wells, executive director of the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
Culinary historians believe Kansas City barbecue is the result of its geography and myriad culinary influences. Early on, the railroads and the Missouri River brought a supply of livestock to the city known as “the Heart of America.” From the south, Texas cowboys on cattle drives brought their method of cooking over open campfires. From the east, Carolina pioneers introduced the slow cooking style they adapted from the plains Indians. Finally, African and Caribbean cooks contributed their firing techniques and seasoning styles.
Kansas City grillers believe one does not live on pork alone. “If it moves,” Wells declares, “we cook it.” Here you are as likely to find chicken or lamb on the menu as beef or pork. “In Kansas City you can go 10 different places and get 10 different products, and they will all be great,” says Wells.
If you’re hungry for beef ribs or brisket, beeline to Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue. In this unremarkable building you will find what essayist Calvin Trillin called “the single best restaurant in the world.”
Eddy Echols, general manager of the original Arthur Bryant’s (there are two other locations in the area), was raised on barbecue and knew the founder of Arthur Bryant’s. Consequently, he says, “We keep things like Mr. Bryant did them.” Here they slow-smoke it all: brisket, beef ribs, chicken, turkey and pork, sauced with a vinegar-based concoction. “Some places do it fancy, but at Arthur Bryant’s, we keep it simple,” Echols says. “You won’t even find a scale here. No weighing. We just grab a handful of meat, pile it high on the bread and serve.”
The styles of the four corners of American barbecue may be at odds, but they do have at least one thing in common: All require you to come hungry. So whichever direction you go in search of the best barbecue, when you head out be sure to bring a healthy appetite—and plenty of napkins.
Zanne Schmalzer writes about restaurants and the restaurant business.