May is National Barbecue Month. A time to celebrate cooking over an open flame. In the broadest sense, barbecue simply means the act of cooking anything over a fire, be it hamburgers, shrimp kebabs, or corn on the cob. For most Americans, though, the word has a more precise definition. It is, for starters, a particular type of food, and one that varies greatly from one part of the country to another. When an eastern North Carolinian says, “Let’s go get some barbecue,” he is referring to finely chopped bits of smoked pork mixed with a spicy, vinegar-based sauce. A Texan saying the same thing usually means sliced beef brisket, while someone from Memphis may be talking about a basket of pork ribs.
The identifying characteristics of a particular region’s style not only include the cuts of meat used, but the equipment and technique used to cook it, and how the meat is chopped, sliced, or otherwise prepared for serving. A region’s style also includes the type of sauce to be served (assuming, that is, that sauce is served at all) as well as the side items that accompany the meat. Over the course of a half-century, the menus and styles within particular areas began to coalesce into the unique regional variations that are so treasured by today’s barbecue lovers.
In Barbecue: The History of an American Institution Robert Moss writes these regional differences in barbecue coincided with the rise of barbecue as a commercial endeavor. Below in this short excerpt, Moss notes that the emergence of this trend can best be seen by looking at the evolution of barbecue as a commercial endeavor in different parts of the country between 1920 and the Second World War.
As in the early nineteenth century, the changes in barbecue culture were reflections of the shifting social landscape of the United States. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, America’s population steadily moved from the countryside into towns and cities. In a rural environment, it took a special occasion such as a stump speech or a civic celebration to draw a large enough crowd to justify roasting a whole pig. Country barbecues were one-time events, with pits dug in the ground for the occasion and supplies provided by the general community. As America’s towns and cities grew, they attracted enough people to serve as a stable clientele for daily operations, and it was in downtown areas that the first barbecue restaurants appeared. The term restaurant is used loosely here, for these operations were usually impromptu stands put up to sell food at public events or as a sideline to another trade, such as selling illegal whiskey. It took several decades for these informal ventures to evolve into full-service, sit-down restaurants.
The first permanent barbecue restaurants evolved out of these sorts of improvised stands as their owners expanded operations, adding brick and cinderblock pits, enclosing dining areas, and offering all the amenities of full-service restaurants. But it wasn’t just a matter of a few entrepreneurs starting to sell an item that was formerly available only at large public gatherings. In order to become a commercial product, barbecue itself had to change, and it changed differently in each part of the country. Early barbecue restaurants were the single greatest influence on the regionalization of barbecue, which created the multitude of local styles that we know today.
At old-style outdoor public barbecues, diners had a wide choice of meats because local farmers would donate to the cause whatever livestock they had on hand. It is common to see lists like the following in descriptions of such events: “beef, mutton, pork, and fowls were provided in superabundance and barbecued in an excellent manner.”As barbecue became a business, things became more standardized. In the days before mechanical refrigeration a proprietor could not keep much meat on hand for very long. Many restaurants began as weekend operations, with the proprietor barbecuing a whole hog or a side of beef on Thursday and selling it through the weekend until the supply was exhausted.11 It made sense for early businessmen to settle on one or two standard products to serve, and most chose the meat most readily available in the area—hence the prevalence of pork in North Carolina and beef in Texas.
Side dishes needed to be standardized, too. When barbecues were large, community-organized affairs, the side dishes consisted of food that was easy to carry in bulk and without refrigeration. As cooks began establishing regular barbecue businesses, they generally chose a different (but reasonably small) set of side dishes to carry. Many reflected local specialties or preferences; others were simply recipes that the particular proprietor knew well and felt would be an economical item to sell. “Back in the old days,” recalls Wayne Monk of Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, North Carolina, “you was trying to have something you could handle in the hot weather but didn’t cost an arm and a leg—what is locally available and what’s cheap.”13 Initially, sides tended toward items like bread, pickles, and onions. Coleslaw was an early favorite in North Carolina because locally grown cabbage was abundant and cheap and, if you didn’t add mayonnaise, it wasn’t very perishable.As mechanical refrigeration, air conditioning, and electric deep fryers became more common, new items such as potato salad and French fries began to appear on barbecue restaurant menus, too.