The Barbecue Bible is one of my father's most prized pieces of literature. It's where he's gotten his signature sauce recipe, ideas for his rubs, instructions on how to brine turkeys, smoked fish, and generally turn my mom's usual instinct to just sear chicken for dinner on its head. This story, I'm certain, is not unique. Thanks to the Food Network and the historic bestowing of a James Beard Award to pit-master Aaron Franklin, a sort of barbecue renaissance has occurred in the US.

Now restaurants from San Diego to Boston claim to have some of the best barbecue you can get your hands on. Even college dining halls try to serve "barbecue," as mine did last week. It was a horrific mess of overcooked shredded pork buried in sauce. With popularity comes a muddling of what barbecue really is, and a blurring of the lines between regional distinctions that yields something resembling a pot roast with liquid smoke doused on it, or things that you shouldn't even define as barbecue. So, what is barbecue? And how can we rescue it from its over-sauced fate America has unsurprisingly doomed it to?

What Barbecue Is Not

One of the biggest things we've done to muddle the good name of barbecue in America is limit the definition of BBQ to anything cooked and consumed outside. While barbecues as social gatherings rose to prominence in the mid-1800s where they functioned as family fun and civic engagement events, the idea of a family barbecue conjures images of grilled chicken and questionable potato salad. Our barbecues deserve more, and so do our taste buds.

Redeeming the Name of Barbecue

So then what is this elusive food type, if we're going to define it as something more specific than any dinner that includes red-checkered tablecloths and sliced watermelon? According to Time magazine, real barbecue is anything cooked over indirect flame, not a propane blaze, for a long time, sometimes 12 hours or more. Many food historians—aka people with my dream job—agree that the word barbecue is a derivative of 'barbacoa.' Not to be confused with the stuff you order at Chipotle, 'barbacoa' is a word the Spanish used to identify meat being cooked in earth pits by indigenous peoples in what is today the Caribbean.

Throughout the centuries, it's morphed into a certifiably American phenomenon, playing on regional tastes and available ingredients. Barbecue is slowly being revived by our new culinary sensibilities and desire to distance ourselves from other questionable food choices in our history (mayonnaise salad anyone?).

Barbecue and Regional Identity

pork, beef, beans, meat
Gaby Derlly

While barbecue is a certifiably American thing, not all American barbecues are made the same. I would even caution that there are certain areas that shouldn't try barbecue—I'm looking at you Boston, "you can't get down that low." At least not without strict parameters and deep knowledge of what kind of barbecue they're producing. We've defined barbecue as hunks of meat over slow flames, but you have to go deeper than that to make barbecue and not just meat leather. Here's how I see the barbecue break-down:

Kansas City

KC barbecue is molasses-y and sweet. Not sickly sweet like the stuff you find bottled at the grocery store, but definitely will give you a cavity if you're expecting something more along the lines of Carolina barbecue. Check out this Spoon article for a more detailed breakdown of what makes Kansas City barbecue so unique.


pork, barbecue, beef, sauce, meat, pepper, brisket, baby back ribs, spare ribs
Julia McKay

Home of the dry rub, Memphis will serve you something vinegary and smokey, and probably in rib form. You know that Memphis is a true barbecue capital because they host a yearly competition to honor the food and perfect the craft.


When you think Texas, you likely think Longhorns, and the same is true for barbecue. It's not surprising that a state known for its cattle ranching is also known for it's beef barbecue, a stark difference from the pork preferences of other regions. According to the Texas A&M school of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Texas barbecue is not about sauce, it's about smoke. You'll be quizzed on your wood of choice for your meat and will be shunned if you try and douse a brisket in anything called sauce.


Now, I know someone will try and fight me just because I put the Carolinas together, and what's more I didn't separate into east and west, a divide that has the potential to tear families apart. Generally speaking, Carolina barbecue involves a lot of chopped hog and vinegar. Sometimes very smokey, sometimes with ketchup, but always pork and always delicious.


Barbecue in the state known for its fried chicken is often ignored and it shouldn't be. Kentucky offers something that no other region bothers to bring to the BBQ table: mutton. This tough sheep isn't usually what one thinks of when they think of barbecue, but it fits the requirements of a meat that only gets better when cooked low and slow. Don't sleep on Kentucky barbecue, it's got a lot of secret gems and is bound to get big soon.

That's the quick and dirty rundown of the most popular types of barbecue in America. What is barbecue? It's a lot of things, colored by regional identities, sauce loyalties, and centuries of tradition. Today barbecue is everywhere, and while I am grateful, it's always a good reminder to be wary of what kind of barbecue you're eating. Is it tangy from the Carolinas? Or beef mopped in sauce from Texas? Knowing the difference makes you a better orderer, a happier customer, and a hoot at cocktail parties. Here's to real summer barbecues.