In the book, Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue (University of North Carolina Press, John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, authors, © 2008) we learn the history of barbecue in America.
John Reed tells us, “Barbecue as we know and love it got its start in the Caribbean, of all places. There are descriptions of island barbecues dating back to the 1500s, which would involve cooking a less appetizing variety of meat — we’re talking alligators, lizards, and fish — low ‘n’ slow and basting it with lemon juice and red peppers.
“When the Spanish introduced hogs to both the Caribbean and the southeastern United States, pork became the meat of choice.”
Reed tells us it’s likely that this Caribbean cooking tradition was introduced to the mainland by slaves in the early 19th century. Haitian refugees who sought asylum in America following a revolution in their country probably played a role in this introduction, too.
Vinegar was used elsewhere in the United States since lemons were hard to find north of Florida,
“Even in Texas, this was the sauce they were using everywhere in the 1850s, ’60s, ’70s,” Reed says.
Eastern North Carolina Vinegar Sauce
The spicy and acidic African flavor profile was readily adopted in eastern North Carolina. Considered the mother of all-American barbecue sauces, it can be traced back several centuries in North Carolina. It relies on a combination of cider vinegar and added spices like cayenne, black pepper, crushed red pepper, hot sauce (often Texas Pete), salt, and sometimes water.
Western North Carolina or “Piedmont Style” Sauce
When Henry J. Heinz unveiled his ketchup at Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 a major turning point in the history of barbecue sauce nationwide. The South began to see a huge division in sauce styles. Western Carolinians began cooking pork shoulder and dressing it with a tangy, vinegar-based sauce that’s slightly reddened and sweetened by the introduction of ketchup. An article in North Carolina’s Our State magazine, stated that the style may be attributed to five men of German descent who developed the Piedmont style sauce based on Bavarian practices of serving pork shoulder with sweet and vinegary sauce.
South Carolina-Style Mustard Sauce
Like the Piedmont-style dip, German immigrants are also to thank for this tangy smoked meat condiment. According to the South Carolina Barbecue Association, these Germans arrived in South Carolina settlements with mustard in tow. The mustard-based Carolina Gold is thinned with vinegar and doctored with added spices for a zingy flavor, and to dress pulled pork and other pork cuts.
Everything is different in Texas; it seems only natural Texans would create their own sauce style. Texas’s beef barbecue cuts are often cooked with flavorful basting sauce applied during the smoking phase. It is used mostly to keep the meat from drying out, but it also adds flavor as the meat smokes.
Traditional Texas barbecue sauce is a well-seasoned mixture of tomato, spices, celery, onions, and garlic. It is somewhat old-fashioned; thinner and less sweet. It typically includes vegetables as well as flavor from meat drippings. Many Texas sauces include vinegar, Worcestershire, and spices like salt, pepper, and garlic. So, the Lone Star State created more of a cooking style than a sauce style.
Kansas City-Style Sauce
Kansas City, Missouri’s thick, sweet, and tangy sauces are what most Americans associate with barbecue. KC style has a sweeter, heavier consistency coming from ketchup and molasses. Additives like liquid smoke impart a barbecue flavor without having to use wood coals, fire, or a smoker. Worcestershire, brown sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, and other spice may also find their way into the recipe.
Barbecue restaurants in Kansas City set themselves apart by creating their house sauces with taste variances from peppery and spicy to extra vinegary.
Many outside the Southeast and Southwest areas of the country think barbecue is made with hamburger. Therefore, good marketing tactics helped KC style gain massive distribution in supermarkets and chain restaurants. McDonald’s trained us to dip McNuggets and fries in it, and is the go-to for barbecue greenhorns.
Alabama White Sauce
An invention of northern Alabama barbecue pioneer Bob Gibson white sauce has a strong following in the small region around Decatur. White sauce is a mixture of mayonnaise, vinegar, and pepper. Most devotes serve it with smoked chicken. It’s served thick and creamy or milky and is an anomaly in the class of American sauces.
The Final Word
Barbecue sauce tastes are as varied as the nationalities that inhabit our great country. While local traditions are strong and allegiance to your area’s ‘cue style is understandable my hope is that you will experiment as you travel to different parts of the country and find your favorites.
One thing I’ve learned in my travels is that Jeff Foxworthy’s observation that rednecks are everywhere, not just in the south, is true for barbecue as well. Go forth and enjoy!