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I was talking to a friend of mine who’d made a trip to Central Texas to visit friends. Her friends took her to their favorite local barbecue joint, and she was in absolute, utter dismay.
She was upset because her barbecue was, in her opinion, dry, flavorless and disappointing. Upon further discussion, the barbecue itself was cooked well enough, but seemed to pretty much just taste like smoked beef and not much else. She had gone to ask for sauce, and they didn’t have any for her.
Some of us may already know what’s going on here. This column is for those who don’t.
You see, barbecue is of course a staple of Southern existence. This isn’t to knock what you can find outside of the South in professional joints. Anyone can learn how to make great barbecue – but here it’s an expectation. But it goes beyond that.
Barbecue here in Alabama is NOT going to be what you find in other regions. The regional cultures, tastes and availability of ingredients absolutely impacts how the definition of barbecue has developed.
Alabama: Okay, y’all, we’ve gotta talk about white sauce. It’s absolutely fine. It’s not bad. But is it the best thing about Alabama barbecue? Ab-so-lutely not. The key to Alabama barbecue is cold fire cooking. Our local pitmasters know the best preparation for most barbecued pork to cook is to burn a pit fire, let it burn down to embers, and cook over those embers for about six hours.
You get all the smoke and the heat you need, but you don’t overcook your pork. I’ve got strong opinions about this and will absolutely throw hands.
Another interesting note I found is that coleslaw with barbecue is absolutely an Alabama thing. This makes sense, because when I’ve gotten barbecue elsewhere I’ve been struck by how lacking the coleslaw situation is. I just never put two and two together on that one.
P.S.: We use hickory as God intended.
West and East Carolina: The Carolinas are heavily pork focused, but they’re divided down the middle in terms of how to sauce it. You’re often going to find Carolinian barbecue to be a full pig cooked over a pit of barbecue.
East Carolina barbecue is going to be sauced with vinegar and pepper. I guess since they’re coastal they want their barbecue to taste like the ocean, too? I don’t know; I don’t get it either.
Meanwhile, West Carolina is primarily going to entail the shoulder, ribs and butt cuts. The sauce is more potent, prepared with multiple sugars, molasses, ketchup, and spices.
Memphis: They’re pretty similar to us, except they overcook their pork, pretending that 14-plus hour long cooks directly over a fire will do anything for you but give you dry pork. I detest many things involving Tennessee, and out of spite will say nothing further.
Kansas City: Yeah, I know, this isn’t the South, but their burnt ends get an honorary mention. Get that heavily rubbed brisket end, nice and charred up, pair it with a sweet barbecue sauce, and I’ll be your buddy for a solid ten minutes.
East Texas: Texas is known for its barbecue trinity: Brisket, sausage and pork ribs. As with all things Texan, overindulgence is absolutely a culture cornerstone.
East Texas barbecue is comfortable with using a proper sauce because the heat hasn’t completely melted their brains yet. They use mesquite wood though, which I don’t trust. Stuff tastes like a campfire.
Central Texas: And here we have the absolute heathen of the group. Central Texas barbecue is like if you popped someone upside the head with a tire iron before you gave them their pitmaster apron.
First off, there’s no sauce. Not before, not after, not never. They seem to take some sort of pride in their mesquite-smoked meat tasting plain and dry.
On top of this, for some forsaken reason they don’t cook their barbecue over the heat. Instead, Central Texas barbecue is prepared laterally – sideways from the heat source, which is typically an open fire rather than coals.
Now those of you who haven’t melted your brains by living in a forgotten desert may remember that heat naturally moves upward. Then again, if you’re living somewhere as hot as the middle of Texas, maybe you don’t even bother with a fire. Just throw it out on the sidewalk and let the ants get in it. I bet you if you did this, stuck a longhorn emblem on it and called it the “San Antonio Special” some lone ranger would probably defend it with his life.
So there you go. The long and short of it is simple – sauce belongs on barbecue, don’t burn it, use a lightly flavorful wood, and for the love of God don’t cook it sideways.