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In the United States, barbecue (also spelled barbeque or abbreviated BBQ) refers to a technique of cooking that involves cooking meat for long periods of time at low temperatures with smoke from a wood fire; often this is called pit barbecue, and the facility for cooking it is the barbecue pit. This form of cooking adds a distinctive smoky taste to the meat; barbecue sauce, while a common accompaniment, is not required for many styles.
Barbecue traditions may not have originated in the United States, but have become popular throughout the country. Often the proprietors of Southern-style barbecue establishments in other areas originate from the South. In the South, barbecue is more than just a style of cooking, but a subculture with wide variation between regions, and fierce rivalry for titles at barbecue competitions.
The origins of American barbecue date back to colonial times, with the first recorded mention in 1697 and George Washington mentions attending a "barbicue" in Alexandria, VA in 1769. As the country expanded westwards along the Gulf of Mexico and north along the Mississippi River, barbecue went with it.
The core region for barbecue is the southeastern region of the United States, an area bordered on the west by Texas and Oklahoma, on the north by Missouri, Kentucky, and Virginia, on the south by the Gulf of Mexico, and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean. While barbecue is found outside of this region, the fourteen core barbecue states contain 70 of the top 100 barbecue restaurants, and most top barbecue restaurants outside the region have their roots there.
Barbecue in its current form grew up in the South, where cooks learned to slow-roast tough cuts of meat over fire pits to make them tender. This slow cooking over smoke leaves a distinctive line of red just under the surface, where the myoglobin in the meat reacts with carbon monoxide from the smoke, and imparts the smoky taste essential to barbecue.
These humble beginnings are still reflected in the many barbecue restaurants that are operated out of "hole-in-the-wall" (or "dive") locations; the rib joint is the purest expression of this. Many of these will have irregular hours, and remain open only until all of a day's ribs are sold; they may shut down for a month at a time as the proprietor goes on vacation. Despite these unusual traits, rib joints will have a fiercely loyal clientele.
The first ingredient in the barbecue tradition was the meat. Pigs came to the Americas with the Spanish explorers, and quickly turned feral. This provided the most widely used meat used in most barbecue, pork ribs, as well as the pork shoulder for pulled pork. The techniques used in barbecue are hot smoking and smoke cooking. Hot smoking is where the meat is cooked with a wood fire, over indirect heat, at temperatures between 120 and 180 F (49 and 82 C), and smoke cooking is cooking over indirect fire at higher temperatures. Unlike cold smoking, which preserves meat and takes days of exposure to the smoke, hot smoking and smoke cooking are cooking processes. While much faster than cold smoking, the cooking process still takes hours, as many as 18. The long, slow cooking process leaves the meat tender and juicy.
The next ingredient in barbecue is the wood. Since the wood smoke flavors the food, not just any wood will do; different woods impart different flavors, so availability of various woods for smoking influences the taste of the barbecue in different regions.
Stronger flavored woods are used for pork and beef, while the lighter flavored woods are used for fish and poultry. More exotic smoke generating ingredients can be found in some recipes; grapevine adds a sweet flavor, and sassafras, a major flavor in root beer, adds its distinctive taste to the smoke.
The last, and in many cases optional, ingredient is the barbecue sauce. There are no constants, with sauces running the gamut from clear, peppered vinegars to thick, sweet, tomato and molasses sauces to mustard-based barbecue sauces, which themselves range from mild to painfully spicy. The sauce may be used as a marinade before cooking, applied during cooking, after cooking, or used as a table sauce. An alternate form of barbecue sauce is the dry rub, a mixture of salt and spices applied to the meat before cooking.
While the wide variety of barbecue styles makes it difficult to break barbecue styles down into regions, there are four major styles commonly referenced (though many sources list more). The four major styles are Memphis and Carolina, which rely on pork and represent the oldest styles, and Kansas City and Texas, which utilize beef as well as pork, and represent the later evolution of the original Deep South barbecue. Pork is the most common meat used, followed by beef and veal, often with chicken or turkey in addition. Lamb and mutton are found in some areas, such as Owensboro, Kentucky (International Bar-B-Q Festival), and some regions will add other meats.
Memphis barbecue is primarily two different dishes: ribs, which come "wet" and "dry", and barbecue sandwiches. Wet ribs are brushed with sauce before and after cooking, and dry ribs are seasoned with a dry rub. Barbecue sandwiches in Memphis are typically chopped pork served on a simple bun and topped with cole slaw. Of note is the willingness of Memphians to put this chopped pork on many non-traditional dishes, such as pizza or nachos.
Carolina barbecue is usually pork, served pulled, shredded, or chopped, but sometimes sliced. It may also be rubbed with a spice mixture before smoking and mopped with a spice and vinegar liquid during smoking.
Two styles predominate in different parts of North Carolina. Eastern North Carolina barbecue is normally made by the use of the "whole hog", where the entire pig is barbecued and the meat from all parts of the pig are chopped and mixed together. Eastern North Carolina barbecue uses a thin sauce made of vinegar and spices (often simply cayenne pepper). Western North Carolina barbecue is made from only the pork shoulder, which is mainly dark meat, and uses a vinegar-based sauce that includes the addition of varying amounts of tomato. Western North Carolina barbecue is also known as Lexington barbecue, after the town of Lexington, North Carolina, home to many barbecue restaurants and a large barbecue festival, the Lexington Barbecue Festival.
South Carolina has three regional styles. In western parts of the state, along the Savannah River, a peppery tomato or ketchup-based sauce is common. In the central part of the state (the Midlands), barbecue is characterized by the use of a yellow "Carolina Gold" sauce, made from a mixture of yellow mustard, vinegar, brown sugar and other spices. In the coastal "Pee Dee" region, they use the whole hog, and use a spicy, watery, vinegar-and-pepper sauce. In the Piedmont area of the state shoulders, hams, or Boston butts are used.
Kansas City, Missouri has a wide variety in meat, but the signature ingredient is the sauce. The meat is smoked with a dry rub, and the sauce served as a table sauce. Kansas City style sauce is thick and sweet (with significant exceptions such as Arthur Bryant's, which is significantly less sweet than others in the region, and Gates, notably spicier than other KC-style sauces) based on tomatoes and molasses. This is perhaps the most widespread of sauces, with the Kansas City recipe K. C. Masterpiece being a top-selling brand.
There are four generally recognized regional styles of barbecue in Texas: East Texas style, which is essentially Southern barbecue and is also found in many urban areas; Central Texas "meat market style," which originated in the butcher shops of German and Czech immigrants to the region; West Texas "cowboy style," which involves direct cooking over mesquite and uses goat and mutton as well as beef; and South Texas barbacoa, in which the head of a cow is cooked (originally underground).[page needed]
The original use of buried cooking in barbecue pits in North America was done by the Native Americans for thousands of years, including by the tribes of California. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries eras, when the territory became Spanish Las Californias and then Mexican Alta California, the Missions and ranchos of California had large cattle herds for hides and tallow use and export. At the end of the culling and leather tanning season large pit barbecues cooked the remaining meat. In the early days of California statehood after 1850 the Californios continued the outdoor cooking tradition for fiestas.
In California a well-known barbecue dish is grilled tri-tip beef rump, sometimes cut into steaks. The Santa Maria Style BBQ, originally from the Central Coast of California, uses a portable 'towed' trailer version frequently seen at farmers markets.
The old Mexican Ranchos of California would cook tri-tip over a pit of red oak, and simply season it with salt and garlic to enhance the flavor. It was served with pinqinto beans, pico de gallo and tortillas.
The cooking customs of the indigenous peoples of Polynesia became the traditional Hawaiian luau of the Native Hawaiians. It was brought to international attention by 20th century tourism to the islands.
Barbecue in Kentucky shows two distinct traditions involving both choice of meats and preparation. In the Western portion of the state, mutton is the meat of choice as pitmasters smoke whole mutton shoulders over cinderblock pits of coals, using hickory, oak, and sometimes sassafras. This region favors a Worcestershire-based sauce, often referred to as "dip." In the South Central part of the state, "shoulder" is the choice meat. This refers to thin-sliced pork shoulder smoked over live coals for 45 minutes to an hour. It is sauced in a vinegar and pepper mix, and often served on bread.
Oklahoma's BBQ roots blend the pork barbecue traditions of the Southeastern United States (brought by Native Americans and African Americans after the Trail of Tears as well as the Texas beef barbecue tradition.
Modern Oklahoma BBQ tends to be a hybrid form. Most sauces are similar in style to those of Kansas City and Memphis but the meat selections borrow heavily from Texas (Beef Brisket, ribs and sausage are all common). Poultry is also common as well (including smoked turkeys at thanksgiving).
Commonly used smoking woods include hickory, pecan and oak (black jack and post). Mesquite is also increasingly being used.
St. Louis-style barbecue refers to various pork dishes prepared in and around the city of St. Louis, Missouri. A staple of grilling in St. Louis is the pork steak, which is sliced from the shoulder of the pig.
Another item unique to the St. Louis area is crispy snoots, which are cut from the nose and cheek area of the pig. This cut is prepared by removing the pig's nostrils and cooking the remaining meat until crispy. Snoots, which have a flavor similar to pork rinds, can be served in several ways, including slathered with barbecue sauce and placed on a sandwich or broken into pieces and dipped in sauce.
While less prevalent than the other Southern styles, Virginia barbecue is a fair mixture of Carolina and Memphis barbecue. Originating in Hanover, Virginia in the 19th century, the traditional meat is pork (often Virginia ham) or chicken, although more gamy meals contain venison or squirrel. Unlike Carolina barbecue, the texture of meat is sweeter and finer. However, it does contain the smoky blend of Memphis barbecue. The key ingredients are bourbon/wine, vinegar, peppers, corn, and a tomato-based sauce.[page needed]
Other regions of the core barbecue states tend to draw their influence from the neighboring styles, and often will draw from more than one region. Southern barbecue is available outside of the core states; while far less common, the variety can be even greater. With no local tradition to draw on, these restaurants often bring together eclectic mixes of things such as Carolina pulled pork and Texas brisket on the same menu, or add in some original creations or elements of other types of cuisines.
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Nationally and regionally sanctioned barbecue competitions occur. State organizations like the Florida Bar B Que Association often list competitions taking place throughout any given year. Visitors are welcome to visit these contests, and many of them hold judging classes where it is possible to become a certified barbecue judge on site.
There are hundreds of barbecue competitions across the region every year, from small local affairs to large festivals that draw from all over the region. The American Royal World Championship contest, with over 500 teams competing, is the largest in the United States. Another major contest is the Houston BBQ world championship contest in Texas. Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest is another one of the largest, and there is even a contest dedicated to sauces, the Diddy Wa Diddy National Barbecue Sauce Contest. The non-profit Kansas City Barbeque Society, or KCBS, sanctions over 300 barbecue contests per year, in 44 different states. Despite the "Kansas City" name, the KCBS judges all styles of barbecue, which is broken down into classes for ribs, brisket, pork, and chicken.