I have the unique experience of having grown up in a city that claims to be the BBQ capital of the world and moving later in life to an area that treats their BBQ like a religion. Keep in mind that in the South, BBQ is a type of food, not an activity or a metal cooker better known as a grill. Unless you are from Texas or Kansas city, it is also synonymous with pork. Each area claims to have rights to BBQ supremacy, and each is different. If you want to know the differences, read on.

Short Version

BBQ Styles:

  • Memphis style
  • Kansas City style
  • St. Louis style
  • Eastern Texas style
  • Central Texas style
  • Lexington North Carolina style
  • Eastern North Carolina

Memphis

memphis stlye bbqMemphis, where I was born, stakes its claim as the BBQ capital of the world (to the chagrin of Texas and Kansas City) through world-famous BBQ restaurants and the annual World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, held during the Memphis in May celebration each year. This contest is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest pork barbecue contest in the world.

Names like Corky’s and Rendezvous are well known as BBQ legends, and thanks to the Memphis origins of FedEx, these southern secrets have gone global. Corky’s, once just a local joint with 3 locations, now ships its famous sauce and rubs to drooling BBQ lovers around the world on a daily basis.

Memphis BBQ is mostly pork shoulders or ribs, slow cooked in a pit, and pulled – never cut. When sauce is used, it is a fairly thin, tomato-based sauce with a sweet and tangy flavor, often with some spicy heat thrown in. While many resources will claim that Memphis BBQ is usually served dry, I have never been to a ‘q’ joint that didn’t include the sauce with pulled pork unless you requested it dry. The ribs are prepared either dry, with a salty dry rub applied before cooking, or wet, with the sauce applied before, during, and after cooking. I’m biased of course, but to me there is only one real BBQ, and that is Memphis BBQ.

Kansas City

If there is any other area that has wide recognition as a BBQ haven, it’s KC. The KC BBQ tradition started with slow smoking in a pit, like traditional Memphis BBQ, but today the BBQ in Kansas City includes almost any kind of meat and a variety of sauces and cooking styles. The area has become a kind of central BBQ hub where you can find pork, beef, chicken, mutton, or even fish cooked in the style of North Carolina, Memphis, Texas or St. Louis in addition to the traditional KC style.

Two things that distinguish Kansas City BBQ as a local staple are the sauce and what they call ‘burnt ends’.

You will find a wide range of sauces available in the area that may be sweet, tangy, spicy, or any mixture of these, but the old-school staple is a thick mixture of tomato and molasses and has a sweet and spicy flavor. The other distinctive item you’ll find here is ‘burnt ends’, which is the crusty ends or tips cut from a smoked beef or pork brisket. These are served all over the area and are as popular as anything else that is considered BBQ, if not more so.

While sides are important parts of a BBQ plate everywhere, Kansas City also distinguishes itself by its baked beans, which have a distinct sweet and spicy flavor that matches the BBQ and are often flavored by the burnt ends as well.

St. Louis

St. Louis BBQ is really the bastard child of Memphis BBQ and Kansas City BBQ. You may get a bit riled by that statement if you are from the St. Louis area, but the facts are the facts.

St. Louis BBQ is primarily pork ribs cooked on a grill with direct heat. The city is known for grilling in general, which is why it sometimes gets lumped in with the BBQ group, but the direct heat grilling method is not considered the ‘true’ way to cook BBQ by experts and connoisseurs.

The ribs are squared off and have the riblets and flap meat removed, and are similar in appearance to ‘baby-back’ ribs. The sauce that is used is a tomato-based sweet sauce, which is similar in thickness to Memphis sauce and somewhere between the tangy Memphis style and the sweet and spicy KC style in flavor.

As a side note, if you are ever in the St. Louis area and need to find a good and unique place to eat, head south to Sikeston, MO and check out Lambert’s Cafe, “home of the throwed rolls”.

The food is awesome, and the experience…well, ‘throwed rolls’ is not a way of cooking bread, and that’s not the end of the uniqueness there.

Texas

Texas BBQ BlacksStanding alone in this group, Texas does its BBQ as differently from the others as differently as it does everything else. This isn’t to say that it is any better or worse, but in true Texas style it is unique to the area.

For starters, Texas BBQ is beef, plain and simple. Pork may be cooked there and called BBQ, but that is the exception and not the rule. Everything’s bigger in Texas, and a cow is bigger than a pig, so there you go.

There are different styles for different areas of the state – East, Central, West, and South. However, South Texas is better known for barbacoa – which is not Spanish for barbecue but something entirely different – and West Texas BBQ is essentially grilling beef over mesquite wood, period.

East Texas BBQ is somewhat an extension of other southern styles, but is unique in a few ways. It is usually slow cooked over hickory wood, and does include pork as an option sometimes, though the standard is still beef. The meat is chopped rather than pulled or sliced, and it is usually served on a bun with hot sauce instead of any kind of “BBQ” sauce.

Central Texas BBQ is a horse of a different color. Here, pork doesn’t enter the equation, and the meat is the center of attention – sauces, bread, and side dishes be damned. This isn’t to say that they are outlawed, but they are a far second thought to the taste of the meat, which is rubbed with spices before cooking for flavor. The prepared meat is then cooked over indirect heat from oak or pecan wood.

North Carolina

North Carolina BBQSince I started with Memphis – the place where I started my life – I’ll end with The place I’ve spent the last 14 years, North Carolina. I live in the eastern part of NC (at the beach – don’t be jealous), and just like Texas there are distinct differences between the eastern and central/western parts of the state when it comes to BBQ.

The Lexington, or Piedmont, style of NC BBQ is similar to Memphis BBQ. Pork shoulder is the meat generally used, and a smoker grill is the cooker of choice. The sauce is a thin red sauce based with tomato and vinegar, although the emphasis is reversed from the Memphis style sauce with the vinegar taste taking a more prominent role. This sauce is also often used to replace mayonnaise in coleslaw, making a ‘red slaw’.

Once you move to the eastern part of the state, BBQ takes on a new identity. Nothing is spared, as the entire hog is thrown on a smoker grill, locally referred to as a “pig cooker”. The meat is slow cooked at temps lower than usual for many hours, and sometimes the entire day, and is flavored with a vinegar sauce that is not much more than vinegar with some pepper. Tomato is not allowed in eastern NC sauces. For that matter, the sauce is not really used as sauce per se, and is primarily a treatment of the pig before and while cooking. If you go to a “cookout” in these parts, you are usually attending a “pig pickin’ “.

And you thought BBQ meant grilling chicken in the back yard!

BBQ Checklist
  • Stop calling a cookout a barbecue
  • Try some different styles of BBQ
  • Experiment with the different sauces
  • Learn to spice up your baked beans
  • When you need a break from BBQ, go get some Throwed Rolls from Lambert’s Cafe

Lamberts Cafe Throwed Rolls

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About The Author

Wally Peterson

Wally Peterson is a writer and aspiring beach bum living sixty seconds from the sand in the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina. He has a face made for blogging and his idea of fashion is wearing socks.

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