What Is a Barbecue (and How Do You Make It)?

Filed in American Culture by on May 23, 2014 0 Comments

Photo by Steven Depolo.

You might be invited to a typical American barbecue this upcoming holiday weekend or at some point this summer. So for those of you who might think all barbecues are the same, I have news for you. As a native, Alabamian, if I went to a barbecue and saw burgers, hot dogs, or grilled fish instead of pulled pork sandwiches and thick slabs of ribs on the table, I would be very confused by my host’s idea of a “barbecue.” In Alabama, barbecue means smoked pork, usually slathered in a sweet-spicy tomato-based sauce, and maybe some chicken for variety. That’s what you plan to serve if you invite folks over for a barbecue. If the plan is to serve hamburgers and hot dogs, then I would call that a “cookout” or tell people that we’re grilling. What a barbecue is—let alone how to make barbecue—can vary dramatically across the United States.

Outside of the southeastern United States, I think the terms barbecue and cookout are used interchangeably. Sometimes you might also hear the phrase “grill out.” When my sister moved from Alabama to Utah to go to college, she was very disappointed that the school-hosted barbecue she went to during her first week did not include pulled pork sandwiches. Likewise, I threw a barbecue for friends when I first moved to Washington, D.C., and a friend from California asked me where the hamburgers were.

There’s also the matter of different types of barbecued meat (like smoked pork, brisket, or ribs) and the sauce that is used on them. As I mentioned, the barbecue I am most familiar with is smoked pork sandwiches smothered in a tomato-based sauce. But Alabama is also famous for its white barbecue sauce. My family also traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, where we ate ribs that had been seasoned with a dry rub instead of being covered in a heavy sauce. And in parts of North Carolina, my tomato-based barbecue sauce would be heresy. Eastern North Carolina is known for a spicy sauce that mixes vinegar with hot pepper and spices. The western edge of North Carolina, however, adds tomatoes to that mix. Western North Carolina barbecue cooks often use pork shoulder for their barbecue instead of the whole hog, as is more common in the eastern part of the state. And in South Carolina, you can find a mustard-based barbecue sauce.

When it comes to preparing the main entrée for a barbecue, the key is time. I remember when my uncle made smoked brisket during a family trip one summer. First he soaked the wood so that it would burn slowly. Then it took hours of carefully monitoring the smoker to keep the temperature just right. I don’t have the luxury of a smoker or grill (let alone the space for either) at my D.C. apartment, so I make barbecue in a slow cooker instead. And with enough time to let the pork become tender and the right sauce to flavor it, it’s a very good substitute for the pork sandwiches at some of my favorite restaurants in Alabama. So remember, depending on where you are in the United States, know that your barbecue experience could vary dramatically.

And for fun try this simple recipe for easy barbecue at home.

Dr. Pepper Pulled Pork Slow Cooker Barbecue (recipe originally from allrecipes.com)

  • 2 pound pork tenderloin or pork shoulder
  • 12oz can of root beer or Dr. Pepper
  • 18oz bottle of barbecue sauce
  • Hamburger buns

Season the pork with salt and pepper. Place the pork in a slow cooker. Pour the can of root beer or Dr. Pepper over the meat. Cover and cook on low until well cooked and the pork shreds easily, 6 to 7 hours. Move meat to a separate bowl and drain liquid. Shred the pork with two forks. Stir in barbecue sauce. Serve on hamburger buns.