In 1871, Abraham Lincoln, John Wayne and Mark Twain were onsite in Chicago investigating the origin of the Great Chicago Fire that wiped out the entire city. The three great men finally encountered the charred remains of Mrs. O'Leary's cow who had started the unfortunate blaze by accidentally kicking an oil lamp into some straw. Upon noticing the carcass was infused with the rich scent of the smoldering hickory slats of the barn, they immediately played a quick game of Dare. When Wayne was saddled with the dreaded Triple Dog Dare, he had no choice but to peel some flesh off of the burnt cow, and eat it. He found it delicious, Lincoln made it Law, Twain wrote about it, and that is how barbeque was invented!
Would you eat meat cooked in here? Man, I sure would.
Now that you know that crucial fact, the food shows on American teevee define 'barbeque' strictly as meat slow roasted in a closed vessel that holds the smoke, by a relatively small but constantly tended wood flame. The teevee also clearly states that simply cooking outside is not necessarily barbeque. I agree with this take. It might be 'grilling', or a 'cookout', but if it isn't low and slow, then it isn't BBQ.. Another misnomer is perpetrated by the thousands of roadside diners as well as chain restaurants selling 'BBQ Ribs' that have been prepared on a grill, or under a broiler, or God help us, boiled. Please, please, I understand not everyone has access to a proper smoker, so one must do what they must. But don't ever ever boil ribs! If that's your choice, make some Kraft mac-and-cheese, instead.
That being sorted, let's next disclose that there isn't one type of American BBQ. If I had to guess, if American-style BBQ existed outside of the States, it is most likely labelled 'Texas BBQ'. Texas is famous for its wide open spaces, cowboys, cattle ranches, which certainly seem rustic and barbeque-y. It is also quite true that Texas has its own specific style of BBQ. For certain, people from Texas regard it as the one true BBQ. But another gospel truth stated by the teevee food shows reckons there to be four main specific types of BBQ in America. And if I can help you sort out the combatants in the American Pizza Wars, I can certainly help you out with this.
In my mind, this is almost a perfectly cooked BBQ brisket. Note the crust and the pink smoke rings. Is a bit dry.
Texas has cows; cows make beef; beef makes Texas barbeque. The prep is simple, rub your roast with some peppery rub. The cooking, though, can and has been transformed into culinary art. Oak, pecan and mesquite trees are indigenous and are used as fuel for the arduous 12 to 18 hour process of basting and tending the low 190 degree fire which creates a crust bark while keeping the meat moist. No sauce is involved in the preparation of this beef. If you want it, they'll grudgingly give you a relatively bland sauce, along with pickles, onions, jalapenos and white bread. They don't want the sauce, or anything else, to interfere with the flavor of the beef.
Most Texan BBQ purveyors also make 'hot links', a smoked beef sausage, as well as 'burnt ends', a delicacy for us true crust fans. After the brisket is prepared, and sliced for consumption, smaller pieces remain from the tips of the cut. These are tossed in rub and resmoked for several more hours. The result is crusty without being burnt through.
Don't sleep on the hush puppies
Texas has cows, and the Carolinas have hogs. Carolina barbecue is pork, and while most will serve your spare ribs, the emphasis is on the smoked pork shoulder which is either pulled apart (see above) or coarsely chopped. As with Texas, I've terribly generalized an entire region but this type of pork preparation is the most widely found in the area. I've also utterly discounted the whole African-American background behind Carolina pork BBQ, but that's a whole other article.
Pork shoulders are basted and tended over a low 185 degree Oak and Hickory heat for 8 to 12 hours, resulting in an incredibly tender and rich meat suitable on a plate or under a bun. Once again, the meat is prepared without a sauce. Carolinans though have more appreciation for sauce than Texans, and the traditional Carolina sauce is a thin, tangy mustard and vinegar based product designed to soak into the pork without becoming gloppy.
Carolina barbeque is typically served with an oil-based cabbage slaw, and little deep fried nuggets of goodness called 'hush puppies'. If you decide you want to squeeze some BBQ sauce in the slaw, they'll applaud you. Most places offer the choice of slaw, with or without sauce. Obviously, I love it!
Finally - ribs!
Nine paragraphs in, and no mention of ribs? It's ok, I got this.
Memphis, Tennesee, USA. The Mid-South. Back door to Mississippi. Home to Elvis, B. B. King, Justin Timberlake, and the famous Memphis ribs. As with Carolina pork, the story of Memphis BBQ lies primarily with the African-Americans who first cooked ribs as slaves, because the ribs were considered 'trash meat' by their masters. Two centuries later, due to cooking perfection, the BBQ pork rib is considered to be one of the true American delicacies.
Memphis ribs are rubbed with a spicy dry rub before they are smoked for four to six hours over 225 degree hickory coals. As with all the regional varieties of barbeque, local availabilities of meat and wood dictate the tastes. No sauce is added to most Memphis ribs, although a few places will mop with Memphis sauce the last 15 to 30 minutes to create a spicy bark. Memphis sauce is tomato and pepper based, not sweet, with some cayenne pepper bite. It is usually served on the side along with white bread, baked beans and slaw. St. Louis BBQ is prepared similarly, only with less emphasis on sauce.
Note: I've shown zero sarcasm up until now. This is a first for me on FoodTribe. Such is my respect for barbeque.
Kansas City BBQ
Check out how these ribs glisten! That's meat candy, right there
The fourth and last major subset of American barbeque is found in the middle of flyover country, Kansas City, MO. KC BBQ can be many things to many people. In Texas, they only had beef, and in Carolina they only had pork. Since KC is the long-running site of major stockyards, KC BBQ pitmasters had access to both! They smoke briskets, pork shoulders, and are also known for their massive grilled steaks. I once ate a 2 pound Porterhouse there. But the 'wet rib' is the signature of KC BBQ. Ribs are basted in KC sauce before, during, and after smoking.
There doesn't seem to be a specific reason why sweet sauce is so prevalent in KC, unless you wish to advance the theory that at one point, they'd grill you any dead animal to eat, and the sauce masked the flavor. I don't buy it. Nevertheless, Kansas City barbeque sauce might be the most American of condiments. It is thick and sweet, with tomato, molasses, brown sugar, and spices. We put it on chickens, burgers, catfish, shrimp, french fries, pizza (!), ice cream (jk). I myself try to use it sparingly. It is liquid diabetes.
Since I prefer eating cows more than pigs, I prefer Texas BBQ. But Carolina BBQ is awesome in and of itself, and the assist by the hushpuppies nearly nudge it to the top. Finally, since I like my ribs with less glop, I prefer Memphis BBQ over KC BBQ.
But here's the thing: let me tell you about the worst BBQ I have ever had in Kansas City. It was awesome! Regardless of where you sit, if the meat is properly smoked, it's fine with me.