In his book, “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution,” author Robert Moss describes the accounts of European explorers and colonists witnessing the Native American tribes of the Caribbean and along the East Coast of North America cooking meats over wood burned down to coals for longer periods of time rather than directly over an open flame. The word barbecue originates from a word (often spelled borbecue or barbecu by Europeans) the Taino Indians in the Caribbean used to describe a frame made of green sticks used for both cooking and a sleeping platform, according to Moss.
It’s widely accepted that as more travelers from Europe were exposed to the Taino style of cooking, a pit dug into the ground with the frame over low intensity heat, the Spaniards who dominated the early exploration of the area referred to the method as barbacoa. As more Spanish explorers moved up the East Coast of North America, they took the cooking style with them, and subsequently introduced swine to the new-found continent.
As barbecue made its way through the new world and took on new styles and additions, four areas and their respective iterations of the cooking method became known as the predominant barbecue locations. Most would agree that the Carolinas, Memphis, Texas and Kansas City represent today’s styles of barbecue and all others are derived from the regions around these self-proclaimed “Barbecue Capitals of the World.”
Pork on the East Coast
Many historians believe escaped pigs from the original introduction made their way inland and were destined to be enjoyed barbacoa style by the Chickasaw Tribe along the Mississippi River. With new settlers and colonists continually arriving in the New World, the marriage of an efficient and inexpensive cooking technique and the cheap and dependable nature of pig farming gave birth to the popularity of what would become Carolina-style barbecue as it’s known today.
The early semi-feral pigs were left to roam and forage for themselves before barbecuers herded them up for slaughter. These pigs were leaner than most of today’s portly pigs. Southerners utilized and perfected the “low-and-slow” method of cooking in the barbacoa style to tenderize leaner meat. This was the beginning of today’s iteration of barbecue that started in the American south, specifically the Carolinas.
According to John Shelton Reed, author of “Holy Smoke: The Tar Heel Barbecue Tradition,” and a member of Southern Foodways Alliance, a West Indian-inspired sauce of vinegar and cayenne pepper was being used on the finished barbecued pork no later than the early 19th century. Eastern North Carolina and the adjoining regions of South Carolina and Virginia continue to use this version of “barbecue sauce” on their finished barbecue to this day, almost unchanged from the original formulas.
This style of cooking moved through the immediate region and the rest of the South, changing and adapting as it went. In central South Carolina, the German influence led to a preference for a mustard-based sauce and west of Raleigh, North Carolina, the vinegar and cayenne pepper sauce gets some tomato ketchup mixed in. In the Eastern part of North Carolina, the tradition of cooking the whole animal became prevalent, while the state’s western style typically focused only on the pork shoulder.
As barbecue techniques and tastes moved west, they began to change even more based on many cultural and geographical factors.
The next stop on American barbecue’s journey took place in Memphis, Tennessee. Pork still remained the meat of choice, and while pulled pork still reigned supreme, at some point in Memphis, ribs became a favorite and grew in popularity.
Memphis’ location on the Mississippi River made it a port and gave the city access to a plethora of raw goods, including molasses. By adding molasses, brown sugar and ketchup to the vinegar base from the Carolinas, a sweeter sauce was created by the locals to go with a slight sweetness derived from slow smoking with apple or cherry wood.
Memphis added another variant to barbecue as the method moved through its borders on the way to the rest of the country, dry rub. Although Memphis added some sweetness to barbecue sauce, the city’s claim to barbecue fame is the dry rub technique of seasoning. Traditionally, purveyors of barbecue in Memphis base their dry rubs on chili powder, paprika and other aromatics, then add their “secret” spices to create their own.
Some have started to experiment with basing rubs on some type of sugar (usually brown or turbinado), but this can become overpowering if it’s not balanced correctly, and traditionalists still prefer rubs without sugar.