- Historic Sites
It’s the most purely American food-and that’s maybe the only thing about it everyone agrees on
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
It’s the ultimate representation of the American melting pot.
“If you don’t use the whole pig, it’s not barbecue,” says 75-year-old Pete Jones, owner of the Skylight Inn, in Ayden, North Carolina. All along the flat coastal plain of the Carolinas, where English colonists were once dominant, whole-hog barbecue is the primary style. In eastern North Carolina the pig is cooked very simply and served with the plainest of sauces, vinegar seasoned with salt, pepper, and a little red pepper. At a pig pickin’, a whole-hog barbecue get-together, guests have the option of picking the meat off the bones themselves or having it pulled and chopped, or not, to be eaten on a plate or on a soft bun, topped with a little more sauce and some coleslaw.
In the Piedmont district of western North Carolina, whole hog gives way to pork shoulder as the meat of choice. Professor Gary Freeze of Catawba College finds a link between the immigration of Pennsylvania Germans into the Piedmont and the transition from whole-hog to shoulder barbecue.
South Carolina cooks whole hog along the coast and shoulders and ribs elsewhere, but the state is known primarily for its unusual mustard-based sauce. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia all are securely within the pork belt as well, as is Tennessee. In these places whole-hog barbecue is found in rural areas. In the cities you’ll more likely find pork shoulders and ribs, along with more aggressive smoke flavors and tomato-based spicy sauces.
According to one Southern scholar, anyone foolish enough to barbecue anything besides pork puts himself “irrevocably outside the barbecue belt.” This option is ignored in Kentucky. Every May, Owensboro holds an International Bar-B-Q Festival where “mutton gluttons” compete in a mutton-eating contest. Some believe Owensboro’s barbecued-mutton tradition began with the protection of sheep farmers under the Tariff of 1816. But the Kentucky and mutton connection predates that. A guest at the wedding dinner of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks, in Washington County, Kentucky, in 1806, recorded, “We had … a sheep … barbecued whole over coals of wood burned in a pit, and covered with green boughs to keep the juices in.”
Farther west they barbecue beef. Why? The obvious answer is that there are a lot of cattle in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas. The question really should be, How did barbecue get to these Western states at all? The Texas barbecue writer Robb Walsh believes that black slaves, who made up 30 percent of the state’s population by 1860, brought barbecue with them from the South. When German and Czech immigrants got to Texas in the middle of the nineteenth century, they in turn brought a liking for sausage and brisket. Hot guts, as barbecued sausages are called, and smoky brisket became key to the Texas barbecue table.
Kansas City also barbecues beef, but when you get that far north and west of the original barbecue belt, traditional strictures go out the window and the natives go wild—just not necessarily hog wild. Carolyn Wells, executive director of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, says that in her town “if it moves, we cook it.” And they cook the beef, hogs, goats, lambs, ducks, chickens, turkeys, and fish any way they please, so long as it’s with plenty of smoke and lots of bright and brassy sauce, heavily laced with tomato and sugar. Kansas City is home to the world series of barbecue, which draws nearly 400 contestants and tens of thousands of spectators every year.
Fertile ground for food historians is the as yet unexplained fact that in some parts of the United States pit masters are primarily black men, while in others they are white. Robb Walsh says East Texas “is the only place where black Southern barbecue includes beef.” There is no doubt that the African-American connection with barbecue is strong. A barbecue was the celebratory reaction in Galveston, Texas, to the announcement on June 19, 1865—two years after the Emancipation Proclamation—that slavery had been abolished in that state. Since then a barbecue picnic has been traditional with many black Texans on Juneteenth. The great black migration between the two world wars brought barbecue to the inner cities of the North and Far West. In nearly all these places the ’cue is mostly pork ribs and sausage, although in St. Louis there is an underground passion for barbecued hog noses, known affectionately as snoots. But folks there don’t talk to outsiders very much about that.
Some fear that the real long, slow barbecue may be on the endangered list.
For years barbecue was the province of the rural and urban working class and poor, celebrated quietly by them at sociable back-yard get-togethers and in smoky roadside joints that weren’t always in the phone book. The middle class occasionally participated in the “Barbecue Eucharist,” as one writer put it, at the annual church picnic or at political fundraisers. And from Sam Houston’s speech at the “Great American Barbecue” political rally for the American party in 1860 to LBJ’s famous cookouts, barbecue has always had a political tinge. You can’t campaign in the South without eating at barbecues. Sometimes political history is even made. South Carolina’s first integrated political event after Reconstruction was held at Gov. Donald Russell’s victory barbecue back in 1963. Even today Dixie Bones, a restaurant in Woodbridge, Virginia, caters political barbecue bashes for Southern members of Congress up in Washington—and provides three different sauces.