What Is Real Barbecue?

Are real barbecue ribs slathered in sauce or rubbed with dry spices? It depends on who you ask. (Photo: TMON/Shutterstock)

I've probably told this story before, but it bears repeating since we're talking about barbecue.

Several years ago, on my now defunct South Jersey Locavore blog, I posted a recipe for Slow Cooker Southern Pulled Pork with Cole Slaw. I was recreating a sandwich I'd originally had at a restaurant in the South. I linked to the blog post here on Mother Nature Network, and Yahoo picked up that article and put it on its front page. My little blog that usually saw about 20 visits a day suddenly saw more than 50,000 visits a day for about a week.

But with that surge of visitors also came controversy. Some indignant people couldn't believe I had the nerve to take a traditional Southern barbecue dish and adulterate it. People were offended I shredded the recipe with two forks when I called it "pulled" pork. They were offended I took something that was supposed to be barbecue and sullied it in the slow cooker. And, a few were even adamant that I overstepped my bounds, writing about a Southern dish when I live north of the Mason-Dixon Line. One person even said my life would be in danger if I ever dared step below that line.

What I learned from that experience is that barbecue is serious stuff, and the people who love it can get passionate about who can make it and how. My experience certainly wasn't unique. Recently, an article on Munchies about Brooklyn barbecue taking over the world got its share of not-so-polite comments from barbecue zealots when over 10,000 people commented on this Twitter post.

People responded with comments about the food on that tray not being barbecue, GIFs of people shaking their head or saying "no," and of course, photos of what real barbecue is to them.

Photos like this and this.

While all of those photos look more satisfying than the Brooklyn barbecue photo, they all include different styles of food. So, the question remains: If Brooklyn barbecue isn't real barbecue, what is? Is it anything you can throw on a grill?

A little perspective

I asked Mary Cressler to help me understand barbecue. She's the co-founder of Portland, Oregon's Ember and Vine, a barbecue catering and events business, as well as the writer and creator of Vindulge. I purposely went outside what's known as America's Barbecue Belt to try to get a non-biased opinion.

"Grilling, as a verb, is the definition of hot and fast cooking," she told me. "It's getting that burger and hot dog charred up and delish for your backyard picnic. Barbecue, while often used in the same context, is actually the low and slow cooking method where historically tougher cuts of meat were cooked at low heat with a fire to create tender and more flavorful food. Barbecue goes back generations and has historical links all over the world, albeit called different things. Barbacoa is where the word originated from and has a Caribbean influence."

More important than barbecue's technical definition, though, is that it's culturally significant and a source of gastronomic pride to many regions in the United States. (Perhaps that was why there was such a backlash to the Brooklyn barbecue photo. It doesn't look as if anyone took pride in creating that platter.)

"Barbecue instills a sense of place," said Cressler. "Whether the tender beef brisket of Texas, or a vinegar sauced whole hog from North Carolina, barbecue should be celebrated for the region in which it expresses the food and style of cooking. Let’s not argue over whether Kansas City produces the best burnt ends, but instead enjoy that it all represents generations of cooking methods from around the world that tie back to sitting around a fire or cooker, having good times with those close to us and enjoying that food."

Keeping that in perspective, there are some generally recognized styles of barbecue here in the U.S., and not surprisingly, none of them come from Brooklyn or my slow cooker in South Jersey.

Kansas City (KC) barbecue

Visit KC notes that barbecue is "more than a menu item or a method of preparation. It's an institution, rich with history and culinary tradition that shapes the city’s dining landscape every day." With a history dating back to the early 1800s, chicken, beef and pork all became part of KC barbecue, partly because it was a stockyard and meat-packing city.

KC barbecue is traditionally dry rubbed and then smoked, but the barbecue sauce that's added at the end is central to the experience. It's thick and sweet, and most barbecue restaurants have their own secret recipe.

Memphis barbecue

The sauce for Memphis barbecue takes a back seat to the dry rub that relies heavily on paprika in this barbecue that focuses on pork. Dry rubbed ribs are the epitome of Memphis barbecue, according to TripSavvy. They're eaten dry or served with sauce on the side for dipping, a sauce that's less sweet and thinner than KC sauce. When ordering, simply ask for "wet" or "dry."

Carolina barbecue

There's North Carolina barbecue and South Carolina barbecue, and a big difference is in the dip, according to Eater. In fact, there are three common dips (or barbecue sauces) in these two states — two from North Carolina and one from South Carolina.

The more northerly Carolina offering has a vinegar sauce and also a sauce known as Lexington or Piedmont style. The vinegar sauce is a combination of tart "vinegar (usually cider vinegar) and added spices like cayenne, black pepper, crushed red pepper, hot sauce (often Texas Pete), salt, and sometimes water. The Lexington or Piedmont style adds ketchup to the vinegar sauce. In South Carolina, a mustard-based sauced contains vinegar and zingy spices.

Texas barbecue

According to Thrillist, various regions of Texas have different barbecue styles: "South Texas focuses on barbacoa, East Texas serves chopped beef, and West Texas cooks over direct heat in a style more akin to grilling." When people refer to Texas barbecue, though, they're generally referring to a fourth style done in Central Texas: brisket cooked low and slow over indirect heat, usually served dry. There must be brisket on the plate, but there may also be pork or beef ribs, sausage, turkey or pulled pork in addition.

I fully understand that by giving some very basic definitions of these regional barbecue styles, I will be leaving something out or getting something wrong because even within regions, styles can differ. Go ahead and let me know what I got wrong in the comments, just no death threats, please.