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An Essential Guide to American Barbecue Traditions

From the Carolinas to Kansas City, Memphis to Texas, meat plus smoke equals barbecue bliss. Here's what each region offers — and the best places to eat each kind.

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Photo: Courtesy of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ

Let's Take a Barbecue Road Trip

At its core, barbecue is a simple food: meat plus fire plus time. Cooking meat over fire is a tradition that’s found in virtually every culture, and the U.S. is no exception. Simple as that may be, there are several variables that create distinct styles of regional barbecue, including the preferred protein, types of wood or charcoal, rubs and sauces, and techniques and timings. Plus, there are regional twists on side dishes and regional barbecue specialties.

The good news is, as pit masters set up shop in states outside their hometowns, you can find great barbecue everywhere, from Memphis-style ribs in St. Louis to top-notch Texas brisket in Charleston. And with immigrants adding their barbecue traditions to the mix, other regional styles of barbecue are emerging, too, like barbacoa in California and Tex-Mex barbecue in Texas.

Barbecue is a celebration food, an economic way to feed a crowd and an undeniably delicious way to bring people together at the table. Whether you’re eating barbecue at a mom-and-pop roadside stand or a pilgrimage-worthy destination, good barbecue never goes out of style. Here, we explore some of the defining characteristics of American regional barbecue traditions, plus where you can eat it and what to order.

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Photo: Little Hand Images/Getty

North Carolina

North Carolina is known for two styles of barbecue delineated by geography — Eastern and Western — and defined by two things: pork and sauce.

Sam Jones, the self-styled barbecue man of Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville and Raleigh, and author of Whole Hog BBQ, sums it up thusly: "The Eastern part cooks whole hogs with a thin, vinegar-based sauce, the Western part cooks pork shoulders, and their sauce is a tad sweeter because of the introduction of sugar and ketchup."

The type of wood used is often a reflection of what’s available in that part of the state. "Eastern has more oak than hickory, even if there’s hickory mixed in. The further you go west, the more hickory there is," Jones says.

In North Carolina, barbecued pork is either chopped or pulled, and served on a sandwich or as part of a barbecue plate. In the whole hog barbecue tradition of the East, the pork is chopped, then dressed in a vinegar-pepper sauce. In the West, the pork shoulder is either chopped or pulled, dressed with a ketchup-based barbecue sauce, and often served on a roll as a sandwich (Jones advises ordering it "with outside brown on it" if you want some of the bark — the meat’s exterior that received the first heat and smoke.)

Jones, who learned the art of whole hog barbecue from his grandfather, Pete Jones, of the legendary Skylight Inn, says that the beauty of whole hog barbecue is that chopping the different cuts together creates a blend of distinct textures. "It makes a flavor explosion when you eat it: there’s crunch, changes in texture and flavor, and little concentration of salt on the skin," he says.

Traditional North Carolina sides include collard greens, macaroni and cheese and coleslaw. Though even the coleslaw varies from east to west: Eastern-style 'slaw is made typically mayo-based (though sometimes you’ll find it made with vinegar), whereas Western-style 'slaw is made with a sweet, tomato-based sauce. Another regional specialty, Brunswick Stew, features smoked meats in a tomato-based broth, is found on menus across both North and South Carolina.

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Photo: Courtesy of Sam Jones BBQ/Baxter Miller

Where to Eat North Carolina Barbecue

Sam Jones BBQ, Winterville, NC and Raleigh, NC: get a barbecue plate with chopped pork plus collard greens, which are cooked in smoked pork stock and sluiced with a peppery, vinegary sauce. Save room for warm banana pudding (it’s Sam’s mom’s recipe).

Skylight Inn BBQ, Ayden, NC: get a barbecue pork sandwich with slaw at this old-school, cash-only, whole-hog BBQ joint.

Grady’s Bar-B-Q, Dudley, NC: this whole-hog barbecue establishment is run by Steve and Gerri Grady. It’s known for its hickory-and-oak-smoked 'cue and scratch-made sides such as black-eyed peas and collard greens.

Lexington Barbecue, Lexington, NC: at The Monk (named for founder Wayne Monk), you’ll find smoked pork shoulder dressed in a Western-style, ketchup-based sauce. Get a plate of chopped pork which comes with 'slaw (dressed in the same sauce) and French fries.

Buxton Hall BBQ, Asheville, NC: the barbecue and hash combo plate is a must: wood-fired whole hog 'cue dressed in a vinegar-pepper sauce, a cup of hash rice (a nod to pit master Elliot Moss' S.C. roots), two sides (don’t miss the smoky green beans) and hushpuppies adds up to "a big ol' plate of food."

Southern Smoke BBQ, Garland, NC: destination for whole hog 'cue and pit master Matthew Register’s scene-stealing sides, including the coveted mac 'n' cheese and squash-and-rice pudding.

Wilber’s BBQ, Goldsboro, NC: family-owned spot slinging whole hog 'cue that’s been slow-smoked over oak. Opt for a sandwich or get a combo plate teamed with fried chicken.

Picnic, Durham, NC: start with fried Saltines and pimento cheese, then move on to the NC whole hog barbecue sandwich, which comes with a sweet-tangy sauce that blends Eastern and Western styles, dubbed the "Great Carolina Compromise" by owner Wyatt Dickson.

Backyard BBQ Pit, Durham, NC: hickory-smoked, pit-cooked pork shoulder is chopped and pulled, then doused in a vinegary sauce. Get it in a sandwich or as part of a plate with two sides (owner Melvin Simmon’s go-to’s are green beans and creamy potato salad).

Lawrence Barbecue, Durham, NC: this new-school outfit from chef Jake Wood slings classic Carolina pork and Texas-style brisket, plus creative riffs like pork belly burnt ends and a thick-cut, smoked bologna sandwich with mustard and blackberry jam.

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Photo: Courtesy of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ

South Carolina

South Carolina is primarily defined by whole hog barbecue, says Rodney Scott, owner of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ and author of Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ. Despite often being associated with a mustard-based barbecue sauce, South Carolina’s barbecue sauces vary geographically. Scott hails from Hemingway, in the central Eastern part of the state, which is known for vinegar-pepper sauce. "In the Midlands, there’s a tradition of mustard-based barbecue sauces [aka Carolina Gold]. The Northwest part of the state tends toward a sweeter, tomato-based sauce," Scott says.

For his style of whole hog cooking, Scott burns down hard woods such as oak, hickory, pecan or cherrywood, then loads the hog meat side down, cooking it low and slow for about 12 hours, before flipping it and rubbing it with his signature rub and mopping it with Rodney’s Sauce. "It’s a half day of committing to cooking a whole hog," he says. Different cuts such as hams, shoulders and belly are pulled and mixed, which creates texture and a "difference you can taste."

South Carolina barbecue sides include macaroni and cheese, green beans, coleslaw, and hash and rice, a regional specialty of pork bits and pork gravy mixed with rice.

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