American Barbecue

Let’s get one thing straight here: I don’t mess around with my Texas barbecue. To me, the best plate in the world is some dry-rubbed brisket and pork ribs with white bread, pickles, and raw onions. Yum, yum, YUM!

Now, I’d love that plate to be the barbecue standard everywhere I go, but I know it’s just one type of many. Different regions, states, and even cities across the US have their own unique styles, and plenty of folks will fight tooth and nail over whose barbecue reigns supreme. But where did it all begin?

Barbecue itself has existed since humans first threw racks of meat on a fire, but American barbecue—that smoky, tender meat that leaves your mouth happy and your hands messy—is tied inseverably to the Amerian South. And its history begins with one animal: the humble pig.

It’s said that Hernando de Soto, a Spanish explorer, brought thirteen pigs to Florida in 1539 and released them into the wild. They mulitplied into a thriving population that early European settlers eventually hunted as game. Due to the pigs’ abundance and rapid breeding, they became a staple food for the settlers, and pig farms popped up throughout the colonies.

pig farming
Colonial pig farming reenactment in Williamsburg

But for all their muscle, many parts of the pig, like the hock, shoulder, and head, are tough and difficult to eat. Most citizens took only the prime cuts from their pig, such as the loins and chops, then threw away the rest of the animal. However, slave owners on Southern plantations had a different use for the leftover parts: they gave them to their slaves.

The slaves had to learn to make these incredibly tough cuts edible. And they made a discovery that set the tone for the American barbecue we know today: that low-and-slow cooking makes just about anything tender. Using this technique, slaves learned to make communal meals out of whatever meat scraps they were given.

Then came the Civil War. By the time the Union won in 1865, the South was decimated. Entire towns had burned to the ground; crops were destroyed; Confederate dollars became worthless, leaving many citizens bankrupt. Everyone, from ex-slaves to ex-plantation owners, faced hard times.

Richmond Ruins 1865
Richmond, Virginia, 1865

Needing to stretch what they had, people of all classes started using low-and-slow cooking to make meals out of tough meat. The technique quickly gained popularity, and as people experimented with spices and shared recipes with neighbors, regional styles began to take form. When barbecue first popped up in restaurants around the 1880s, its place in American cuisine was sealed. Regional styles continued to become more and more distinct, and eventually, they evolved into the types of barbecue we know and love today.

Even though decent cuts of meat are more accessible nowadays, Southerners haven’t forgotten the humble dishes that got them through tough times. Just check a Southern grocery store for a jar of pickled pigs’ feet or stop by Jackson, Mississippi for a pig ear sandwich!

pig ear sandwich
Pig Ear Sandwich from Big Apple Inn in Jackson, Mississippi

Barbecue is more than a good meal to Southerners; it’s tradition, it’s a testament to determination, and, remarkably, it’s comfort food. Despite its history of struggle, barbecue has always meant sharing—for slaves, for neighbors, for families. And no matter what style you like, you’ll find that love in it to this day.