Few American foods are as evocative of summer as a plate of good, old-fashioned Southern barbecue. Whether it’s Eastern North Carolina chopped pork with vinegar sauce or Memphis-style pork spareribs, hungry diners have been devouring traditional barbecue feasts for generations. But where did this love of all things smoky and porky come from? This week we’ll take a look at the rich history of Southern barbecue, and all its delicious regional variations.
Long before the Civil War, the hog was the staple of the Southern diet. Cheap to raise and incredibly low maintenance, farmers could let young pigs loose in their fields to run wild until it was time for slaughter, usually in the late fall right as temperatures dipped. This ensured not only fat hogs, but the cold was a natural preservative for newly butchered hogs in the years before refrigeration. Of course, no part of the animal was wasted. Meaty back legs were salted and hung in cellars to become Easter hams. Heads were boiled until the tender cheek meat fell from the bone, to be chopped and mixed with spices and turned into headcheese. Even the intestines were saved, to be rinsed and turned into sausage casings or chitterlings.
Since it was easier to share the burden of butchering, cleaning and cooking hogs among many families, slaughtering time was full of parties and gatherings centered around the pig. Southern barbecues evolved out of these seasonal “pig pickins.” By the 1850s, barbecues weren’t just held at butchering time, but anytime a community needed an excuse to party: church fundraisers, school sociables and election canvassing were all typical barbecue feasts. And since every class of people ate pork, the barbecue parties were a unique opportunity for different socioeconomic groups to mix.
No two barbecues were exactly alike. In the boundaries of the so-called Barbecue Belt, the only two rules were that the meat was pork and the cooking methods were long-smoked, all-day affairs: the better for socializing and baby kissing. Sauces and other accompaniments formed the major differences among barbecue styles. In Eastern North Carolina, chopped pork was served alongside a tart, spicy apple cider vinegar-based sauce and hushpuppies. This was a result of the area’s many apple orchards and seafood restaurants where the fried cornmeal dumplings were popular. But in the Western part of the state, where farm crops grew, sauces were tomato-based and served with bread and vegetables.
And don’t forget about Memphis-style barbcue–Memphis was a port city, with easy access to many ingredients other areas in theBelt didn’t have. Molasses came direct off the boats, and formed the basis of a sweet, tangy sauce particular to the region. Arkansas borders so many Southern states that its barbecue is a hodgepodge of many styles. And where might one find pulled chicken, or barbecued drumsticks? Nowhere in the Belt, that’s for sure–those summer staples were Northern inventions, likely designed to appeal to backyard barbecuers and chain restaurant diners.