Who Really Deserves Credit For American Barbecue?

In the latest edition of Between The Lines, we take a look back at the origins of barbecue to examine who brought this cooking technique to the United States, who developed it into what it is today, and how a generation of Black pitmasters is hustling to preserve barbecue’s roots.

Barbecue means a host of different things to different people.

Many people think of barbecue as a hamburger or a hot dog straight off the grill. In fact, 45% of the Americans surveyed in a poll conducted by HuffPost didn’t know the difference between barbecue and grilling. But according to barbecue purists, burgers and dogs are NOT barbecue. They’re grilled quickly over high, direct heat, while barbecue is traditionally defined as quite the opposite: low, slow, indirect heat (and often smoke) applied to meat over a long period of time.

Even if we could all get on the same page about barbecue in that regard, our regional differences would still split us. The United States is host to numerous styles of barbecue, defined primarily by the cuts of meat and the sauces (or lack thereof) served with them.

In North Carolina, the state is split in half: In the east, whole hogs are smoked and served chopped with a vinegar-based sauce. In the west, in what’s known as Lexington-style barbecue, only the shoulder is smoked before it’s served on a sandwich with a tomato-based sauce.

Then there’s South Carolina, famous for whole-hog barbecue and Carolina Gold, a vinegar-based mustard sauce.

Kansas City’s got stellar burnt ends and a barbecue sauce that serves as a model for traditional bottled sauces — thick and a sweet with a tomato-molasses base.

Alabama’s famous for its white barbecue sauce, Central Texas is known for its smoked brisket and Memphis, Tennessee, is pork rib country. St. Louis has its own style of ribs, and the South Side of Chicago is known for its rib tips served on a bed of fries, drowned in sauce. The list could go on and on if one were to delve deeper into American barbecue subcultures.

But while each region takes pride in its own distinct style of barbecue, we can take another step back and look even further into barbecue’s roots, tracing all the way back to when barbecue first gained recognition in North America. Watch the video above to see how barbecue became what it is today, and where it’s headed in the future.