Matt Moore, Southern Eats & Drinks Expert
What is BBQ? That, my friends, is a tough question. If you were to poll 12 people, you’d likely get 12 different, fiercely debated answers. You see, when it comes to this beloved food – everyone has an opinion.
Me? I’d rather eat than argue, ideally with a Dixie Vodka cocktail in hand. As a born and raised Southerner, I’ve had my fair share of BBQ — hell, I even wrote a book on it. From Paris, Tennessee to Paris, France, I’ve made it my personal mission to devour as much ‘cue as possible. My travels and experiences have all taught me one thing, something I hope we can all agree on: good BBQ is good BBQ — no matter where you find it, or where you come from.
Here in the South, we don’t always see eye-to-eye. While your taste in college football teams, politics, or what brand of mayonnaise is best on a tomato sandwich might not be my flavor, we can all agree that we are proud to be Southern and support what makes us Southern however we can. That’s why I’m excited to link up with Dixie Vodka to explore the nuances of Southern BBQ. Dixie Vodka is all about highlighting the flavors of the South, and so am I, so let’s get to work exploring the South’s most famous export: BBQ.
One of the best nuggets of knowledge I ever gleaned throughout my travels was from Adam Myers, co-pitmaster at Burn Co. BBQ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Essentially, Adam believes that your first experience – hopefully during childhood – eating BBQ, will always define your BBQ palate as to what is “authentic.” In other words, if you grew up on pulled pork sandwiches topped with a sweet tomato-style sauce, you’ll likely find the chopped, vinegar-laden pork in the Carolina’s to be quite, well, unusual.
Personally, I believe Adam is on to something. My first experiences eating BBQ in Georgia were more akin to the Carolina style. In fact, I’ve shunned sweet sauce (or really any sauce) on my BBQ for a lifetime. But, with an open mind — something that’s easier said than done in this field — I’ve found that most all variants of BBQ have their advantages.
That begs one of the many questions: pulled or chopped?
As I’ve already alluded to, chopped BBQ is most indigenous to the Carolina’s – especially Eastern North Carolina. “Pig Pickens” as they are called, are celebratory rites of passage that have gone on since the land was first settled. The idea was to roast whole hogs as a special communal feast to mark the harvest.
Whole hog cooking remains the most common method throughout the Carolina’s, especially at iconic places like Lexington BBQ, the SkyLight Inn, and the forgone Wilbur’s BBQ. Because the hogs are cooked whole, the meat is combined, or chopped, together – often with a swash of hot apple cider vinegar, salt, and crushed red pepper. Sauce of any kind is usually shunned (as it should be, in my opinion).
The advantage of the chopped method is it creates more yield, as more fat, skin, and other edible parts are often included in the meat. As you incorporate different cuts, you also develop a richer, distinctive flavor. Shoulders, rib meat, hind quarters, and everything else make their way into the mix, which creates a moist, consistent taste.
It should also be noted that the chopped method can also be used, dare I say, to “save” perhaps that overcooked, or too quickly cooked, piece of meat. Combining extra fat, along with the vinegar solution, and chopping it all together is a technique I often use when I’ve cooked my butts off ☺.
Outside of the Carolina’s, you’ll often find pulled pork, usually from the pork butt, which is technically the shoulder. In order to get the right pulled consistency, one must put a lot of love into their butt. All jokes aside, a properly cooked butt for pulling is one that can literally be pulled apart by hand, where the shoulder blade should pull completely clean from the meat.
Typically, the fat cap is discarded in the pulled method, and larger strands of meat are piled together to serve on a plate or sandwich. Many folks, like those at Burn Co., will “pull to order” to ensure you get the freshest bites with plenty of moisture.
So there you have it. What’s the difference between the two? Just read their names, literally. No matter which style you prefer, both techniques turn out an equally delicious yield.
As to which one is best, that’s for you to decide.
Photos by: Andrea Behrends