Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Geography of Barbacue in the United States

Map from Kraft Foods. Click to enlarge

Three things can rile Americans up into a frenzy: religion, politics, and barbecue. One's opinion on what exactly barbecue (barbeque or BBQ) is and how it is prepared betrays one's origins.

The geography of American barbecue can be broken down by using the techniques of regional geography.

Midwest: Home of true BBQ (bias alert!). Catholicgauze has been blessed with growing up with the Kansas City-school of barbecue. The main dish is pork ribs in a rich, tomato-based sauce. The Kansas City-school has a plurality of favoritism when it comes to national chains and sauces sold throughout the country. It is seen as a mixture of the regions (much as the Midwest itself) and is palatable to almost everyone. Beef brisket and chicken are rising in popularity, though.

South: The original home of American barbecue. Southerners have always favored pork over beef. That however is the extent of unifying factors. A friend once joked each Southern county has its own style of barbecue. Because of the poorness of the past, every part of the pig was used. This allowed for all sorts of variations to be created. Some prefer rib while others prefer pulled meat (Carolina-style for example). And once one starts the sauce versus rub or even sauce versus sauce debate the gloves come off! The maps below demonstrate the uniqueness of Southern barbecue.

Greater Texas: The state of Texas continues its uniqueness with its barbecue. Texas is a beef state with maybe some chicken on the side (however in central Texas pork shares the spotlight with the other two to become "the holy trinity" of BBQ). The cattle industry of post-Civil War Texas allowed this style to spread all the way north into southern Kansas. While other barbecue fans will argue amongst themselves over what the truest form of barbecue is, Texans usually have problems with even recognizing anything but beef brisket.

Unique Zones
Pacific Coast: The Pacific Coast and especially Hawaii have their own unique style. The sauce is usually fruit based (Catholicgauze once sampled a delicious jalapeño-pineapple sauce) and it is spread on sea food or sometimes chicken or beef. Along the Columbia River it is possible to order some barbecued Salmon. That's something on my list to do.

Interior West: The American West is not well known for its barbecue. The West is more known as "steak and potato" country than for "traditional" barbecue styles. However, this has allowed the competing schools to enter the region. National Chains like Famous Dave's (Midwestern and Southern mix) dominate but competitions like Best in the West in Sparks, Nevada attract all sorts of styles.

Northeast: "Blue bloods don't know barbecue," I was once told. "They go to national chains and think they know it." The Northeast however has given something mighty to the barbecue world. Buffalo sauce, usually found on chicken wings, can be used on barbecue for those who want something spicy. If one is in Buffalo, New York you must careful. Be sure to order "chicken wings" because ordering "Buffalo wings" will betray you as an outsider.

So let us see if we can map this out. Where are you from (generally) and what is your definition of a good barbecue?


Leslie Scott said...

I LOVE that map! I would love if I could borrow it.

Anonymous said...

I'm from alabama and I love pork slow cooked in a bbq pit. Pull it apart for a sandwich or just slather it with a thick sauce and chow down, its all good.

MDIJim said...

I was born in MA and have lived most of my 66 years in New England. Always thought that BBQ meant cooking stuff over coals in the backyard.

Once I took a trip to NC and was invited to a BQ joint for lunch. We drove for miles on back roads and ended up in this place that was packed with people, both African-American and Euro-American, sitting at long tables covered with red-checked white table cloths. Who knew?

Things are changing. I live now in a tourist town. A micro-brewery near home has BBQ. Many of the people who work in hotels and restaurants are Jamaican, and there are a couple of Jamaican BBQ places nearby.

Years ago there was an Australian tourist commercial with Paul Hogan talking about putting a shrimp "on the barbie", but few, if any, in New England BBQ seafood.

Catholicgauze said...

Go right ahead!

Anonymous said...

As an Iowa girl, BBQ means a thick tomato sauce cooked into pork. A SC friend introduced me to his "true BBQ" which is the sauced beef or pork sandwich with the cole slaw IN the sandwich. And as a current MA resident, I can confirm that NE has NO BBQ anywhere.

Deaner said...

Great post! I grew up in Appalachia (what your map calls the South) with pork BBQ. The first time I went to a BBQ place in Kansas City I ordered pulled pork and was looked at kinda funny because most people were ordering beef. I now know that beef BBQ is the only way to go. I generally like thick, sweet, tomato-based sauces.

nick said...

As a totally unbiased observer, Texas BBQ is the best. The key isn't the sauce, but the wood over which the meat is smoked.

Roger Hart said...

"...Texans usually have problems with even recognizing anything but beef brisket." That is absolutely true! As a native Texan, I was in my 30's before I even heard of pork barbeque.

However, I have to partly disagree with nicholas. The secret to great Texas barbeque is not just the wood. It's the "rub" (the blend of spices that are rubbed into the meat before cooking). Most great barbeque joints guard their "rub" recipe more closely than the formula for coke.

Anonymous said...


congratulations 4 the blog!! ;-)

greetings from the 1st italian barbecue community