You know Robert Moss. Among many other things, he’s the barbecue editor for Southern Living, the genius behind the Cue Sheet, an engaging writer, and a man so smart that people pay him to eat barbecue. His most recent piece for Southern Living identifies the most iconic dish at barbecue places in each Southern state. It is a noble effort. The choices are well thought out, especially within the severe constraints of such lists (not every state can have ribs as its iconic dish).
“Iconic” is the key word for his choices. From the late Greek eikōn, for image (usually of Christ or a saint), it evokes the sacred, a higher plane of virtue. That’s appropriate for barbecue. Iconic also connotes widespread recognition of the dish at issue. Think of the “Reputation” element of US News college rankings. Iconic also connotes something distinctive, less often found in other states.
As I say, the choices are good, but there’s more to the story. Let’s take a look at the choice for each state, and consider some alternatives.
Alabama No surprise here: chicken and white sauce. This certainly is the most widely recognized Alabama barbecue dish, celebrated in song and story. I think that ribs actually are more iconic in one sense, thanks to Dreamland and Archibald’s
and a host of other places. But any such list needs variety, and white sauce gets the nod, and Big Bob Gibson’s is the iconic white sauce place. Moss falls into the trap of saying Gibson’s is the best place to try the dish. Actually, I think Miss Myra’s is better, but Gibson’s is very good. Try both.
Arkansas Moss picks chopped pork on white bread for Arkansas, as exemplified by Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna. As it happens, Jones Bar-B-Q just burned down, but a GoFundMe campaign seems to have spurred reconstruction. It’s supposed to be great, and I hope to go there soon as part of my next Memphis trip. I also hope against hope that the reconstruction doesn’t alter the character. The original merited designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with, say, Ramey’s, the original Scott’s, and others). Jones being closed, for now you should go to the Dixie Pig in Blytheville for the true and pure essence of a pork sandwich, a sandwich “like Amazing Grace and Loretta Lynn: utterly without pretense, without guile.”
Florida You have to stretch a bit for an iconic barbecue in Florida, and Moss reaches out to smoked mullet. You may associate mullet with the annual Mullet Toss in Flora-Bama, or with the hairdo, which is as likely to be found at Flora-Bama as anywhere. I read that the hairstyle is making a comeback. (Don’t google “mullet making a comeback” unless you are fearless.) I haven’t been to Ted Peters Smoked Fish in St. Petersburg, which Moss recommends. I’ll have to go. Meanwhile I do eat a lot of smoked fish dip whenever I’m in Florida. (Just for the record, you can get some good wood-cooked ribs at Off the Bone and Troy’s, both in Palm Beach County. Where else is good?)
Georgia The iconic barbecue combination in Georgia is a pork sandwich and Brunswick stew. I recently had a post, inspired by Robert Moss, on Georgia barbecue and vote buying below the Gnat Line, which you can read here. For those unfamiliar with Brunswick stew, my grandmother’s recipe is here, and it’s a good and true South Georgia recipe, from Vienna in Dooly County. Readers here in the Washington area can try excellent Brunswick stew at Shaffer’s BBQ and Market in Middletown, Virginia. If you’re in Georgia, you should consult the Georgia page at the Campaign for Real Barbecue site for good honest places to eat barbecue, and, almost certainly, Brunswick stew.
Kentucky The mutton barbecue in Kentucky is truly distinctive, and Moss rightly picks sliced mutton with burgoo as the Kentucky icons. The iconic place to get mutton barbecue — the obligatory mutton place on all the “best lists” — is Old Hickory Bar-B-Que in Owensboro. Burgoo? It’s a stew that’s traditional in Kentucky, and not utterly unlike Brunswick stew. The key burgoo ingredients are (1) at least three different meats, (2) tomatoes in some form, (3) beans, and (4) corn, and (5) potatoes. Note that the Kentucky page at the Campaign for Real Barbecue has a lot — I mean a lot — of good barbecue places, and you should be on the lookout at each for burgoo.
Louisiana Moss settles on barbecue and boudin in Louisiana. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten barbecue in Louisiana. Why would I? When I eat in Louisiana I focus on fish, shrimp, oysters, and crawfish in their various forms and combinations, and on muffulettas. Boudin and andouille can sneak in there, too. Boudin is a great sausage. I just had some delicious boudin at the best Washington area Cajun food place. Moss urges us to be on the lookout for the “hot boudin to-day” sign at Johnson’s Boucaniere in Lafayette. I won’t argue with that. Whenever I see a “Hot Now” sign, I stop.
Maryland Pit beef is indeed the distinctive Maryland contribution. Robert Moss recommends the Pioneer Pit Beef in Catonsville, up near Baltimore, which I will try in the fullness of time. I really enjoyed the pit beef at the Smokehouse BBQ Shack in Mechanicsville, southeast of DC. It’s entirely cooked over hickory coals, and has a wonderful flavor. I also liked their oak-cooked ribs. For more on good barbecue in Maryland, see the oh so slowly expanding Campaign for Real Barbecue Maryland page.
Mississippi Ah, Delta hot tamales! Moss names tamales as the iconic barbecue dish of Mississippi, and cites Abe’s in Clarksdale for their tamales. Abe’s tamales are “normal” size, like Mexican tamales, as you can see.
The tamales south of Abe’s are more representative of the Delta style, but then I can’t think of a barbecue place that serves them. They’re much smaller and lighter. I used to get a dozen of the smaller tamales as an appetizer to go with a rib sandwich at Ralph’s Fast Foods in Cleveland, Mississippi. It was open about all night, and I’d go when I finished up a 20- or so hour day monitoring elections there way back when. The only decorations were a Budweiser sign and the bus schedule to Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary, but it was a genial place. Alas, Ralph’s has closed.
When he was a Big Hungry Boy of 16 working the docks in Helena, Arkansas, my father won a tamale eating contest by eating 36 at a sitting, washed down by three Cokes. The second place finisher only ate 23. As I say, my father at 16 was a Big Hungry Boy.
Missouri Burnt ends — the outside edges of a brisket — were born in Kansas City in days of yore. Now, they are a big deal all over, so they get the nod for Missouri. Once a byproduct given away, they now are commonly purpose-made and often — too often — sugared and honeyed. At Heim Barbecue in Fort Worth, you can get sugar-charged bacon burnt ends, which strikes me as double-gilding the lily. Robert Moss turns to LC’s in Kansas City as a source for the original variety, and I definitely will have some at LC’s on my 2022 Kansas City trip with Doug Jacobson, the Kansas City Barbecue Maven. I really think that a St. Louis specialty, pig snoots, is the most distinctive Missouri dish. I was unaware of them in my trip to St. Louis, so I haven’t had one. Yet.
North Carolina An easy call for North Carolina is the barbecue tray: chopped pork with a vinegar and pepper sauce and slaw. With hushpuppies. Actually, the hushpuppies, which reach a Platonic ideal in North Carolina, are probably the most distinctive aspect of barbecue in the Land of the Longleaf Pine, but the chopped pork tray is the clear pick, and a noble pick it is. Moss properly cites Lexington Barbecue and Red Bridges as outstanding examples, and both have red slaw, which I like. I don’t know why he skipped the Skylight Inn, which does a tray as well as anyone. Now he’ll probably have half of Eastern North Carolina angry at him. In all parts of North Carolina, the Campaign for Real Barbecue site is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to eat great barbecue.
Oklahoma Smoked bologna and hot link sausages are the pick in the Sooner State, and Elmer’s BBQ in Tulsa is the place to get them. I’ve only had smoked bologna once, at a tailgate before a football game in Tuscaloosa, and it was pretty good. I’ve found that hot links vary considerably in terms of … just about everything, and I’m interested to try the Oklahoma version. Oklahoma is on my To Eat list, and Elmer’s is now at the top of it there. I spent some time in Oklahoma on a criminal investigation, but I mainly ate either Mexican food or superb ribeye steaks at the iconic Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in Oklahoma City.
South Carolina For South Carolina, Moss chooses hash, and it certainly is distinctive. Moss describes hash: “a cross between a thick gravy and a stew, hash is usually pork (though sometimes beef) slow-simmered with onions and spices till everything merges together into a rich, savory whole.” It’s best cooked, he advises, in the traditional way — in an iron pot over a fire, at Hite’s Bar-B-Que in Columbia.
Hash isn’t always as mainstream as Moss suggests. Rocket scientist and barbecue expert Howard Conyers has an excellent article on traditional hash, which he sums up as “liver and lights hog’s head hash.” The FDA forbids using the lights (lungs, and thus spares us from haggis), and the amount of liver varies, in my limited experience, from a good bit to none. I plan to give hash some focus when my I make my long-delayed-by-COVID eating trip to upland South Carolina.
The Campaign for Real Barbecue South Carolina page is a must whenever you’re in that good state. Even better, and I have cross referenced the Campaign’s list with the South Carolina Barbecue Association’s list of barbecue places worth a 100-mile drive, and consolidated it all with reference to the State Highway Department’s utterly indiscriminate map of all the barbecue places in South Carolina. You can send off for the map or pick one up at a Welcome Center. And you can find the ultimate curated SC barbecue guide here. Other states should be so lucky.
Tennessee Ribs and barbecue spaghetti. I think the Rendezvous made ribs a big deal in Memphis, in large part because it’s just down the alley from the Peabody Hotel. I ate there a couple of times, and the ribs are good, but hardly a match for Archibald’s or SAW’s or Miss Myra’s. I would have picked the pork barbecue sandwich at Payne’s in Memphis, or the one at Helen’s in Brownsville.
The selection of barbecue spaghetti we owe to the King. Elvis Presley ate it and, like many things he ate, it certainly is distinctive. I have discussed barbecue spaghetti here, and offered a recipe to make it much, much better.
Texas Moss picks beef ribs. I’d pick brisket, but beef ribs are all the rage. A cow’s ribs cover a lot of territory, and beef ribs are in the same region as ribeye and prime rib, only from the tough part of town. They’re a second rate part of the majestic rib cage, but when they’re smoked over low heat for a long time, they tenderize nicely and — this is far more important than it should be — the extra-long rib bone and huge hunk of meat look great on Instagram. And that means that beef ribs cost a lot now, and it’s hard to get a reasonable portion: you usually have to buy the whole rib. Against this, I rebel. If you want great barbecue in Texas, go to Snow’s in Lexington or the City Market in Luling or B. Cooper’s in Austin, or all of the above, and many more. And order brisket and a sausage link or two. Now that’s Texas.
Virginia For Virginia, Moss selects Shenandoah Valley-style chicken. It’s a favorite style in the Valley, and also on the Maryland Eastern Shore, as a fund-raiser for volunteer fire departments and other public purposes. I often had it there, and I really like it. The firefighters (or whoever) set up grates on cinderblocks and cook the chicken over coals. They baste it with a nice, oily sauce — in upstate New York they use a sauce similar to Alabama White Sauce. Joe Payne, the Godfather of Virginia Barbecue, however, insists that Virginia has its distinctive barbecue tradition, which I am enjoying exploring. A good example is Shaffer’s BBQ and Market in Middletown, Virginia. For more good places to eat in Virginia, see the glacially expanding Campaign for Real Barbecue Virginia page.
District of Columbia. DC is listed last, I suppose, because it isn’t a state — more of a colony, not that I’m bitter — and you really have to go to the suburbs to get really good barbecue. See my piece in Sean Ludwig and Ryan Cooper’s Smoke Sheet, here, and see the pathetic DC page at the Campaign for Real Barbecue site where, perhaps not surprisingly for Washington, progress is being made at the rate of tectonic shifts.
West Virginia Moss ruefully admits that he forgot about West Virginia. In fairness to Moss, West Virginia is sort of between regions, and I am unaware, as is Moss, of an iconic West Virginia barbecue dish. The only barbecue I’ve had there was the gilled chicken (a la Virginia) during our many trips to West Virginia’s sensational — I mean sensational, maybe best in the US — state park system. Help us out with your ideas for West Virginia barbecue — styles, places, whatever. Nancy and I have a trip to Charleston on the hazy horizon, and I’ll need to investigate the barbecue situation there beforehand. Meanwhile, please — please share your wisdom.
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