My father moved to Memphis while I was in college. An upstate New York native, I was a bit of a stranger to this brave new world below the Mason-Dixon line. Of course, one of the first things that I had to learn about was Memphis barbecue. They take it very seriously there, arguing about which place is supreme. I’m a fan of Payne’s, simply for the down home feel, but you’ll find advocates for Neely’s, the Rendezvous, Cozy Corner, and Central BBQ in different parts of the city. What was impressed upon me most was that I was having Memphis barbecue. The fact it was theirs, a product of the history and the people that lived there, and that they had opinions about it — very strong opinions, in fact — was an essential component.
As I traveled more and more across the United States, I learned that each and every city with a vibrant ‘cue culture is very proud of each and every one of their regional differences. America is homogenized in most things; most of these cities with lots of ‘cue also have exurbs with big box stores and the like that are the same in each and every city. Barbecue is where these cities get to cut loose and show off what their respective culinary traditions have to offer.
We all watch more or less the same television shows, shop in the same stores and wear the same clothes, but by golly, we do not eat the same barbecue. And let’s hope it stays that way.
So the next time that you’re in a ‘cue friendly town, be sure to embrace all those little regional differences. Ask about the merits of dry versus wet rub, of ketchup versus no ketchup in the sauce (especially in North Carolina, where they’ll talk your ear off about these to sauce bases), whether true pit masters believe that anything other than pork (or beef) is the best, and on and on, ad infinitum. That’s the joy of barbecue in America.
Also, for Pete’s sake, don’t load up on the potato salad; it’s just filler.