I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. Last week, I finally bought the ticket. It’s non-refundable. So I’m doing it. I’m finally going on my very first barbecue tour in the southern US this July.
Unlike most other things I do, where I just sort of throw things at the wall and see what sticks, I am actually trying to plan this time. It’s not easy for me, because I am a spaz. I will start researching something, only to find myself clicking on the crazy True Detective theory website, or looking up songs from the “Sixteen Candles” soundtrack. I have the attention span of a gnat. So it is really very slow going. But it’s (sort of) set. I’m focusing on what is called “real” barbecue, in the so-called “barbecue belt”. That means Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas. That’s it. Really, Texans.
Barbecue means pigs. Pigs are, somehow, intrinsically connected to the Southern identity: a cheap source of protein for centuries, pigs were allowed to run semi-wild in the woods up to the turn of the 20th century, making them easy game for hungry hunters with a halfway decent knowledge of how to start a fire. Although it is back-breaking and time-consuming work manning the pit, it also requires little more than experience: the more you barbecue, the better you get at it. And it is a relatively cheap pastime, breaking the tough or stringy pieces of meat into something that collapses into a velvety ooze. Each region boasts its own sauce, and even, in the case of Texas (beef) and Kentucky (mutton), different protein. But bona fide barbecue deals in pork, and smoke, and fire.
The act of barbecuing is said to have been the glue that kept Southern society together. Any big event — political rallies, church gatherings, etc. — featured one, and all and sundry would show up to socialize and have a little taste of the pig. The word “barbecue” supposedly comes from the West Indian term barbacoa, but Southerners have managed to take this cooking method and knit it securely into their own identities. To provide barbecue, real barbecue, one must be Southern, and understand the tradition of it. And any permutations, variations, iteration must be debated ad nauseum by anyone with even the slightest claim to Southern heritage, because to know about barbecue and its traditions is to be Southern. In this way, barbecue in the South is comparable to street food in Thailand, to me at least. Thais love to debate the merits or demerits of a particular version of any street food dish. They love to cast aspersions on another region’s treatment of the same ingredient. It’s like the social, conversational form of trading cards. This is how you show you are plugged in. Only, in the South, it’s the different ways someone slow-roasts a pig, instead of how someone cooks noodles.
I will start in Nashville, where I’ve never been. I must admit it’s not the barbecue that is drawing me here: it’s something called “hot chicken”, or fried chicken with hot sauce on it, which may be the best thing I have ever heard of. I LOVE FRIED CHICKEN. Next comes St. Louis/Kansas City, where a sweet, tomatoey sauce ladled over slow-cooked ribs is favored. In Memphis, the pig is “pulled” (shredded with a fork) and the sauce has molasses in it. In Alabama … I hear there is something called “white barbecue”, or a mayonnaise-based sauce (YIKES). In Georgia, the barbecue is served alongside “hash” — the Southern version of Scrapple. In South Carolina, the pork is sliced or chopped, and the sauce is piquant and mustardy. And in North Carolina, the “home of barbecue” to many, the sauce is either vinegary and the ‘cue served with hush puppies (on the east coast), or tomatoey and peppery, and served alongside a faintly terrifying dish called “Brunswick stew” in west North Carolina.
Do you know barbecue? Do you, like me, wonder how the different ways people roast pigs reflects the environments they live in? Do you have a favorite barbecue place? This is my tentative itinerary, and my very first attempt at crowdsourcing. If you have any opinions at all — even if you are not a Southerner — please let me know what you think.
— Jim Neely’s Interstate (2265 S. 3rd St., Memphis)
— A&R BBQ (1803 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis)
— Jack’s (416 Broadway, Nashville)
— Siler’s Old Time BBQ (6060 Hwy 100 E., Henderson)
— Prince’s Hot Chicken (123 Ewing St., Nashville)
— Hattie B’s (112 19th Ave. S., Nashville)
— Arthur Bryant’s (1727 Brooklyn Ave., Kansas City)
— FIorella’s Jack Stack BBQ (101 W. 22nd St., Kansas City)
— Pappys Smokehouse (3106 Olive St., St. Louis)
— C&K BBQ (4390 Jennings Station Rd., St. Louis)
— Oklahoma Joe’s (3002 W. 47th Ave., Kansas City)
— Woodyard (3001 Merriam Lane, Kansas City)
— Scott’s BBQ (2734 Hemingway Hwy, Hwy 261 Brunson Cross Rd., Hemingway)
— Martha Lou’s Kitchen (1068 Morrison Dr., Charleston)
— Home Team BBQ (2209 Middle St., Charleston)
— Allen and Son (6203 Millhouse Rd., Chapel Hill)
— Lexington BBQ (100 Smokehouse Lane, Lexington)
— Stamey’s (4524 N. Carolina 150, Lexington)
— Wilber’s BBQ (4172 Hwy. 70 East, Goldsboro)
— Skylight Inn (4618 S. Lee St., Ayden)
— The Pit (328 W. Davie St., Raleigh)
— Scott’s (1201 N. William St., Goldsboro)
— Bill’s (3007 Downing St., Wilson)
— Gladys and Ron’s Chicken and Waffles (529 Peachtree St., Atlanta)
— Pittypat’s Porch (25 Andrew Young Intl Blvd., Atlanta)
— Fat Matt’s Rib Shack (1811 Piedmont Rd., Atlanta)