Food & Drink

ESSENTIAL SOUTHERN BARBECUE DISHES


While barbecue norms can change from town to town, these five offerings stand out in what they add to the canon of Southern ‘cue.

Wildsam

Pulled Pork | Caroline Gutman

Updated

8 Mar 2024

Reading Time

6 Minutes

A version of this piece was originally published in Wildsam's now out-of-print Guide to Barbecue in the South.

PULLED PORK SANDWICHES

Pork on a bun remains the definitive barbecue dish—a foodway at the heart of North Carolina. While everyone in North Carolina agrees that pork is the only meat that matters, the western part of the state serves shoulder sandwiches and the eastern part goes whole hog. You’re guaranteed to get a pepper-vinegar sauce in North Carolina. Out west, toward the Piedmont, that sauce will be blushing pink with ketchup. Eastern North Carolina barbecue is pulverized almost to mush, and sopping wet with its sauce. But the Western North Carolina version has more structure. Both come with finely chopped slaw, making these the rare barbecue sandwiches that finish with a crunch.

Ribs

Memphis is to ribs as Detroit is to automobiles: Good ones are made elsewhere, but civic pride runs particularly deep there. A rack of ribs is primal eating at its finest and demands a big appetite and a stack of wet naps. Though beef ribs are delicious and Flintstonian, the default position in the South is that plain-old “ribs” refer to pork. A properly cooked rib will be splotched with black char—without it, the rib may appear pale and wan. To tenderize their ribs, many pitmasters will marinate before cooking (fruit juice is not unheard of) and then baste with sauce, using a kitchen mop, during the hours over a flame.

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Ribs are the most delicious when they're juicy on the inside and have a crusty bark on the outside. | Jon Tyson

BRUNSWICK STEW

The only soup of note in the barbecue universe, the Brunswick stew is usually served as a side, but can easily get scaled up to an entree. Brunswick stew's origins can be traced back to either Brunswick, Georgia, or Brunswick County, Virginia, depending on who you ask. Traditional stews will feature chicken and usually pork–both shredded–alongside corn, potatoes, and butter beans in a sweet tomato sauce. As with barbecue itself, a proper stew should cook all day over low heat to develop its flavor and grow thick enough to eat with a fork. Also, a shake of hot sauce never hurt it.

White Bread

Your white bread has many functions: Conveyance device, edible napkin, sauce mopper. Even if you order a BBQ platter, as opposed to a sandwich, you’re still probably getting bread on the side. The closer you get to Texas (where it comes standard virtually everywhere), the more common a side of bread is. Pro tip: Never attempt to substitute wheat, rye, pumpernickel or any bread made with a whole grain. Wonder Bread is as fancy as you want to get.

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White bread and brisket are staples in Texas. | Luis Santoyo

BANANA PUDDING

As tempting as it is to gorge yourself on barbecue, it's wise to save some room for dessert. The barbecue world's signature post-meal is banana pudding. It's built around coin-shaped banana slices nestled into a thick custard and fancier offerings get topped with meringue. Homestyle puddings get whipped cream. Some arrive naked. For texture, you’ll usually find either ladyfingers, sponge cake, or (most commonly) vanilla wafers. Always ask if the pudding is made in-house. If not, well, that's when it's perfectly appropriate to gorge yourself on barbecue.

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