Southern BBQ

A chilly day in January and I am thinking of starting the
hickory fire and putting some pork on the smoker.  BBQ – perhaps the most discussed, fought
over, and eaten jewel in all of southern cooking. As a  chef of l’étoile in Charlottesville, I may
know a thing or two about it. But under no circumstances do I claim to be an
expert. (way too many of those already)
You decide for yourself how you like your BBQ.

Why do the regional differences in pig-roasting merit
attention? Barbecue is emblematic of a lot of things in the South– despite
intra-regional differences, barbecue is barbecue all over the Southern United
States. We may argue about which kind is the best barbecue, but very few people
assert that the different types are not part of a vital (and delicious) Southern
tradition. Despite (in John Egerton’s words) the Americanization of Dixie, the
South has maintained a distinct regional flavor that makes it special–
different from any other part of the United States. In tracing the differences
between the different types of pork barbecue, we demonstrate one example of
how, despite geographical disparities, encroaching national homogeneity, and
bitter intra-regional disputes, the South continues to cherish those parts of
itself which make it peculiarly Southern.

This established, our attention turns to the differences
between the many types of pork barbecue. These are many and hotly contested.
Differences can be gauged by comparing cooking styles, serving methods, side
dishes preferred by each camp, and (most contentious of all) sauces.

Much of the variation in barbecue methodology and saucing
in Southern barbecue can be explained by its geographical migrations. After
originally appearing on the East Coast, barbecue began travelling West, picking
up permutations along the way. Spanish colonists spread the cooking technology
(Johnson 6), but the agriculture of each region added its own twist. The simple
vinegar sauces of the East Coast were supplanted by the sweet tomato sauce of
Memphis and the fiery red Texas swab. In western Kentucky, mutton was
substituted for pork, and the cattle ranchers of Texas used barbecue techniques
for slow-cooking beef (with these innovations, southwestern Texans and western
Kentuckians put themselves irrevocably outside the “barbecue belt”).

There are several main regions of barbecue saucery in the
South. Each region has its own secret sauces, with much intra-regional
variation. This “barbecue belt” shares the same tradition of
slow-cooking the meat, but diverges widely in sauces and side dishes.

The roads of the Southern United States are lined with a
succession of grinning pigs, advertising the availability of barbecue in
countless restaurants. The origins of barbecue in the South, however, are
traceable to a period long before the smiling pig became a fixture on Southern
roadsides. The etymology of the term is vague, but the most plausible theory
states that the word “barbecue” is a derivative of the West Indian
term “barbacoa,” which denotes a method of slow-cooking meat over hot
coals. Bon Appetit magazine blithely informs its readers that the word comes
from an extinct tribe in Guyana who enjoyed “cheerfully spitroasting
captured enemies.” The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to
Haiti, and others claim (somewhat implausibly) that “barbecue”
actually comes from the French phrase “barbe a queue”, meaning
“from head to tail.” Proponents of this theory point to the whole-hog
cooking method espoused by some barbecue chefs. Tar Heel magazine posits that
the word “barbecue” comes from a nineteenth century advertisement for
a combination whiskey bar, beer hall, pool establishment and purveyor of roast
pig, known as the BAR-BEER-CUE-PIG (Bass 313). The most convincing explanation
is that the method of roasting meat over powdery coals was picked up from
indigenous peoples in the colonial period, and that “barbacoa” became
“barbecue” in the lexicon of early settlers.

The history of barbecue itself, aside from its murky
etymological origins, is more clear. For several reasons, the pig became an
omnipresent food staple in the South. Pigs were a low-maintenance and
convenient food source for Southerners. In the pre-Civil War period,
Southerners ate, on average, five pounds of pork for every one pound of
beef(Gray 27). Pigs could be put out to root in the forest and caught when food
supply became low. These semi-wild pigs were tougher and stringier than modern
hogs, but were a convenient and popular food source. Every part of the pig was
utilized– the meat was either eaten immediately or cured for later
consumption, and the ears, organs and other parts were transformed into edible
delicacies. Pig slaughtering became a time for celebration, and the
neighborhood would be invited to share in the largesse. The traditional Southern
barbecue grew out of these gatherings.

William Byrd, in his eighteenth century book writings The
Secret History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina has
some pretty snippy things to say about some Southerners’ predilection for pork.
He writes that hog meat was:

the staple commodity of North Carolina . . . and with
pitch and tar makes up the whole of their traffic . . . these people live so
much upon swine’s flesh that it don’t only incline them to the yaws, and
consequently to the . . . [loss] of their noses, but makes them likewise
extremely hoggish in their temper, and many of them seem to grunt rather than
speak in their ordinary conversation(Taylor 21-2)


“Yaws,” of course, is an infectious tropical
disease closely related to syphilis. Perhaps because of natives like Byrd,
Virginia is frequently considered beyond the parameters of the “barbecue

At the end of the colonial period, the practice of holding
neighborhood barbecues was well-established, but it was in the fifty years
before the Civil War that the traditions associated with large barbecues became
entrenched. Plantation owners regularly held large and festive barbecues,
including “pig pickin’s” for slaves (Hilliard 59). In this pre-Civil
War period, a groundswell of regional patriotism made pork production more and
more important. Relatively little of the pork produced was exported out of the
South, and hog production became a way for Southerners to create a
self-sufficient food supply– Southern pork for Southern patriots (Hilliard
99). Hogs became fatter and better cared-for, and farmers began to feed them
corn to plump them up before slaughter. The stringy and tough wild pigs of the
colonial period became well-fed hogs. Barbecue was still only one facet of pork
production, but more hogs meant more barbecues.

In the nineteenth century, barbecue was a feature at
church picnics and political rallies as well as at private parties (Egerton
150). A barbecue was a popular and relatively inexpensive way to lobby for
votes, and the organizers of political rallies would provide barbecue,
lemonade, and usually a bit of whiskey (Bass 307). These gatherings were also
an easy way for different classes to mix. Barbecue was not a class- specific
food, and large groups of people from every stratum could mix to eat, drink and
listen to stump speeches. Journalist Jonathan Daniels, writing in the
mid-twentieth century, maintained that “Barbecue is the dish which binds
together the taste of both the people of the big house and the poorest
occupants of the back end of the broken-down barn” (Bass 314). Political
and church barbecues were among the first examples of this phenomenon. Church
barbecues, where roasted pig supplemented the covered dishes prepared by the
ladies of the congregation, were a manifestation of the traditional church
picnic in many Southern communities. Church and political barbecues are still a
vital tradition in many parts of the South (Bass 301). Usually, these
restaurants grew out of a simple barbecue pit where the owner sold barbecue to
take away. Many of the pit men only opened on weekends, working (usually on a
farm) during the week and tending the pit on weekends. The typical barbecue
shack consisted of a bare concrete floor surrounded by a corrugated tin roof
and walls (Johnson 9). Soon, stools and tables were added, and the ubiquitous
pig adorned the outside of the building. Few pit men owned more than one
restaurant– the preparation of the pig required almost constant attention, and
few expert pit men were willing to share the secret of their sauce
preparations. The advent of the automobile gave the barbecue shack a ready-made
clientele– travellers would stop at the roadside stands for a cheap and
filling meal (Johnson 6). As the twentieth century progressed, barbecue pits
grew and prospered, evolving into three distinct types. According to barbecue
scholar Jonathan Bass, the three kinds of barbecue restaurants are black-owned,
upscale urban white, and white “joints” (more akin to honky-tonk
bars). These racial denotations, however, do not mean that barbecue restaurants
catered to a specific racial clientele. Good barbecue drew (and draws) barbecue
fans of every color and class.

Perhaps because much of its trade consisted of take-out
orders, the barbecue restaurant was an interracial meeting place long before
the forced integration of the 1950’s and 1960’s (Egerton 152). When these
restaurants first appeared, many were owned by black Southerners, and
“whites, in a strange reversal of Jim Crow traditions, made stealthy
excursions for take-out orders” (Wilson 676). In the 1950’s and 1960’s,
much of this comity was lost. Many barbecue joints became segregated by race.
Barbecue has even made it into the annals of legal history, with the
desegregation battles at Ollie’s Barbecue in Alabama and Maurice’s Piggy Park
in Columbia providing often-cited case law as well as a stain on the
fascinating history of barbecue. In the case Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises,
the court ruled that Maurice Bessinger’s chain of five barbecue restaurants
unlawfully discriminated against African-American patrons.

The varied history of barbecue reflects the varied
history of the South. Sometimes shameful, but usually interesting, the history
of barbecue can be seen an emblem of Southern history. For the past
seventy-five years, the barbecue joint has flourished. Although local
specialties and the time-intensive nature of barbecue preparation have insured
that real barbecue (as opposed to defrosted and microwaved meat) will never be
a staple at chain restaurants, barbecue has endured. Aside from its succulent
taste, delicious sauces and the inimitable, smoky atmosphere of an authentic
barbecue joint, barbecue has become a Southern icon, a symbol that is cherished
by Southerners. Without the racist subtext of the Stars and Bars, the
anachronistic sexism of the Southern belle, or the bland ennui of a plate of
grits, barbecue has become a cultural icon for Southerners, of every race,
class and sex.