American Barbecue Traditions

From the Carolinas to Tennessee and Kansas City to Texas, every region embraces unique barbecue traditions.

Every region of the United States has its barbecue specialty: pulled pork sandwiches in North Carolina, racks of ribs in Memphis, "burnt ends" in Kansas City and chopped brisket in Texas. The roots of American barbecue run deep in the South, where even neighboring counties can have different approaches to barbecue, not to mention different states.

Consider North Carolina, a state with a long barbecue tradition.

  • In eastern North Carolina, you would probably find shredded meat from an entire pig, doused with a peppery vinegar sauce.

  • Drive west a few hours from the coast, and you will most likely be served meat from just the shoulder of the hog, with a tomato-based sauce.

  • But, throughout the state, there is a clear preference for barbecued pork and thin, vinegary sauces.

Memphis, Tennessee
is another great barbecue location, home to "Memphis in May," the largest barbecue competition and festival in the world. The city boasts over 100 barbecue restaurants and several different barbecue styles.

  • Like North Carolina and much of the South, pork is the barbecue meat of choice in Tennessee.

  • In Memphis, pork ribs are the most common cut, but the city is divided between "dry-rubbed" and "wet rib" versions. Dry-rubbed ribs are generously rubbed with a mixture of spices, smoked and then served with sauce on the side. Wet ribs are lacquered with tangy barbecue sauce before, during and after cooking.

  • Another Memphis staple is the pulled-pork sandwich — smoked pork shoulder stuffed inside a hamburger bun and topped with coleslaw.

Kansas City
is the barbecue capital of the Midwest. Like Memphis, it's also home to over 100 barbecue restaurants and hosts an annual barbecue competition an an event called American Royal.

  • In Kansas City, both pork and beef are barbecued.

  • And Kansas City barbecue is best known for its sauce, which is traditionally heavy on tomato and uses molasses as a distinctive sweetener. The traditional thick barbecue sauce you buy in supermarkets is based on Kansas City-style sauce. But the bottled varieties are much different from the small batches of sweet zesty sauce cooked up by Kansas City pitmasters.

  • "Burnt ends," the crunchy, charred ends of brisket slabs, are a Kansas City specialty not to be missed.

is a barbecue nation unto itself.

  • Texas is famous for its cattle, and beef brisket is the barbecue meat of choice. But chopped beef and beef ribs are also state favorites.

  • Texas barbecue isn't only about the beef. Spicy pork sausages, called "hot links," and pork ribs are also common barbecue fare.

  • Almost all Texas barbecue is cooked without sauce. The meat is rubbed with spices, smoked and, sometimes, a sauce is served on the side.

  • Barbecue in other states is most often smoked over hickory, oak or a handful of other similar hardwoods. But Texas barbecue usually uses mesquite, which gives the meat a unique flavor.
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