BBQ in America: a primer

Summer is almost well and truly upon us, and the season is just one more reminder of grilling…and barbecue.  While Americans are often teased by our friends around the world for our obsession with fast food, barbecue is the exact opposite of fast.  It’s food that takes time and a bit of artistry.  But even those who enjoy barbecue may not realize how distinctly it’s prepared in different parts of the country, owing of course to climate and the ethnicity of the immigrants who first settled that area.  In this article we are going to give you the lay of the barbecue landscape so you can better appreciate (and perhaps explore) the delicious options on offer.


Memphis barbecue is cooked in a pit and is known for being served either “wet” with a sauce or “dry” with famous and well-known dry rub ingredients.  The protein of choice is pork, most often pulled pork.  Dry bbq is normally served without sauce.  If you do opt for wet, the tangy tomato-based sauce is going to be put on your meet before, during, and after cooking.

The Carolinas

Both North and South Carolina love their pigs.  Indeed, whole hog smoking and barbecue is a specialty of both states.  While both sides of the state line brush their pigs with spice and vinegar during the cook, there is a clear division when it comes time to eat – in North Carolina you’ll more often find a ketchup-based sauce, whereas in South Carolina they have a mustard-based sauce that includes brown sugar, honey, and vinegar in its ingredients.

Kansas City

With 100 barbecue restaurants, and one in particular (Arthur Bryant’s) that has been visited by several presidents, and one that has been listed on one of Anthony Bourdain’s “13 Places to Eat before you Die” list (Joe’s KC), KC is a barbecue destination, for sure.  KC is celebrated for its burnt ends, which are pieces of meat that are cut from the pointy half of a smoked brisket.  The sauce is molasses and tomato-based.


Texas, as almost everyone knows, is an enormous state and within the state there are regional preferences and specialties.  For example, brisket is the protein most associated with Texas bbq, but there are parts of the state that really love their pork.  What unites the different regions of Texas is a treatment of sauce as very much secondary.  Letting the meat speak for itself suits the plain-spoken style of the Lone Star State.

There are some other distinct styles we didn’t have time to mention, like Alabama and St. Louis style.  What’s your favorite style and why?  Share with us in the comments below.

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