Barbecue can be found in any backyard across the good old US of A. However, many epicurean authorities assert that this beloved food can be broken down by four distinct regions: Kansas City, Memphis, Texas and Carolina. Here’s a closer look at these four BBQ styles, along with what makes each so unique — and finger-lickingly delicious.
1. Kansas City, Missouri
Barbecue is more than a meal in Kansas City; it’s a way of life. Explains Eater, “In Kansas City, the history of barbecue is woven along with the city’s legendary history of jazz. The town’s music scene thrived on barbecue in the 1930s. Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, and Charlie Parker were fans of “the father of KC barbecue” Henry Perry’s smoked meats. But subsequent generations of pitmasters have developed their own loyal followings, and competition is fierce.”
Located in the northern part of the “barbecue belt,” Kansas City barbecue draws from many different influences and uses a variety of meats and cuts with no particular loyalty to a single one. Whatever meat is chosen, it’s guaranteed to be cooked slow and long to perfection. Kansas City barbecue is all about its extra sweet, tomato-based, rib-sticking sauce featuring rich and flavorful molasses.
One particular delicacy for which Kansas City is known? Burnt ends. These succulent charred brisket bits have been hailed as “nuggets of barbecue gold.”
And no Kansas City barbecue meal is complete without Southern classic sides like french fries, coleslaw and baked beans.
2. Memphis, Tennessee
While the entire state of Tennessee prides itself on its ‘cue, it’s not for nothing that Memphis has proclaimed itself to be the “BBQ champion of the world.” In fact, locals are so fanatical over their own fare that many refuse to even try another region’s offerings. Wondering what makes Memphis different than the rest?
Proposes Thrillist, “This town’s big on pork, whether it’s in rib or pulled form, and usually uses a dry rub that includes garlic, paprika, and other spices. The meat’s cooked in a big pit, and’s typically served with a tangy, thin tomato-based sauce. How Marc Cohn still managed to sing that song about this city between bites of BBQ is truly remarkable.”
In addition to being known for its flavor-packed dry rub, high-quality met and slow smoking are other characteristics of the impossibly tender barbecue for which Memphis is well known.
And then there’s the sauce. “ If you order a rack of ribs, many spots will provide a thin, tangy, tomato-and-vinegar-based sauce — on the side, mind you. This pungent, pucker-inducing dressing will also come drizzled across your pulled-pork sandwich,” enthuses POPSUGAR.
Texas isn’t exactly known for doing anything small, and this absolutely applies to its larger-than-life barbecue tradition. Playing centrally into this style? Beef brisket. “While other states may focus on ribs and pork, Texans tend to be fanatical about beef brisket, which is marinated in a sweet, tomato-based sauce, then slowly smoked with wood chips. A variety of wood chips like hickory, pecan, oak, and mesquite impart unique, campfire-like flavor to the meat: anyone who’s eaten lunch at a Texas barbecue stand knows it’s nearly impossible to air out the smell from your clothes once you’ve entered the building,” says POPSUGAR.
It’s important to note, however, that BBQ purists might object to lumping all styles of Texas ‘cue into one category. Because while East Texas barbecue is more in line with other heavily sauced, soul food-inspired Southern styles, Central Texas barbecue draws more heavily from the region’s Czech and German roots. The latter is also surprisingly sauceless.
4. The Carolinas
As with Texas, all barbecue produced in the Carolinas is not created equal. But while the Carolinas’ normal geographic borders run North and South, barbecue borders run East to West, AKA “Lexington-style.” Pulled pork is big on both sides, and both areas also tend to top pulled pork sandwiches with coleslaw. But that’s about all these two BBQ styles have in common — aside from being sister states.
Says Thrillist of where the two styles diverge, “Divided between Lexington-style and Eastern-style, both camps agree that the meat (typically pork) should be brushed with a spice-and-vinegar mixture while cooking and served with a ketchup-based sauce. Eastern proponents use the entire pig when BBQing, and Lexington tends to use just the pork shoulder or ribs.”
Despite their differences, however, most Carolinans will agree: Regardless of East or West origins, their ‘cue reigns supreme.
All of which begs the question: Which BBQ is truly the best? The answer is a simple one. It depends on who you ask.
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