In the throes of the American Revolution, our patriots pigged out. In 1769, George Washington made record of attending a “barbicue” in Alexandria, Virginia—written proof that America’s love affair with barbecue is in fact older than America itself.
As time has passed, barbecue has traveled. Every corner of the country has embraced this culinary tradition and added its own unique twist to the traditional recipes. While barbeque as we know it has roots in the South, it continues to branch out to the far reaches of the nation; from the Carolinas to California, Tennessee to Texas, and in the Midwest’s Missouri, barbecue is bigger and broader than ever.
There are hundreds of barbecue competitions in the U.S. every year, from small-town affairs to large festivals that draw the masses. The real giant of these events is the "Memphis in May's World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest," and it’s no surprise why this, the largest of all barbecue grill-offs, should call Tennessee home. With its unique style of “wet” versus “dry” cooking, Memphis has been synonymous with barbecued ribs for years. The wet variety is dolloped with sauce while the latter is seasoned instead with a rub of dry seasoning. Both variations are incredibly popular and a surefire culinary cure for those Memphis blues.
In the Carolinas, ribs are out. Pulled pork is favored, and the secret is in the sauce. Within a single day’s drive, a person traveling across North and South Carolina could savor five variations. In eastern North Carolina, a lighter sauce containing spices and vinegar contrasts with western North Carolina’s hot, sweet, tomato-based sauce. Midland South Carolina’s “Carolina Gold” contains mustard and vinegar, as well as sugar and other spices and in the Pee-Dee area along coastal South Carolina, a spicier, more diluted vinegar-and-pepper version will awaken the palate.
Moving westward toward central Texas, you’ll find that overly-sauced barbecue is considered blasphemy. In Texas, the meat is the real star with cuts including beef and pork ribs, brisket, chicken and sausage. If sauce is even available, it’s typically served on the side, and many Texans consider it completely unnecessary. West Texas “cowboy style” barbecue is unique for its heavy use of mesquite, which infuses the barbecue with an intense smoky quality. Southern Texans enjoy their barbeque with a Mexican flair—using meat from a cow’s head or tongue as the main ingredients for ‘barbacoa’ tacos.
In the early 1900s, Henry Perry traveled from his hometown near Memphis to Missouri – and the barbecue went with him. This restaurateur famously brought barbecue out of the country and into urbanity in Kansas City when he started to serve slow-smoked meats to Garment District workers from his small stand in a back alley. Missouri barbecue is generous with the sauce, and Perry's was infamous for being “harsh and peppery.” Possum, woodchuck and raccoon were standard fare at the time, and while modern-day Missourians might opt out of such adventurous cuisine, they still employ his slow-smoking method, but with a slightly sweeter sauce featuring a touch of tomato and molasses. Missouri barbecue was brought once more to the nation’s attention when famed New York chef Anthony Bourdain featured it on his Cook’s Tour for the Food Network and claimed it was “the best he ever had,” reaffirming the point that the South isn’t the only place with barbecue know-how.
All of these varieties are only the beginning. As world-renowned grill masters such as New York City’s Bobby Flay continue to introduce the practice to new places, barbecue acquires the flavors of Hawaii, the Caribbean and beyond. Even as it goes global, barbecue will never lose its identity as a uniquely American pastime. After all, likely no other country boasts a finger-licking first president.