Know your Texas brisket from your Memphis ribs: a short guide to American barbeque

by | Oct 26, 2023 | Opinion

Meatstock, surely New Zealand’s most self-consciously butch food and music festival, is set to return in February to its old Hamilton stomping grounds after a three year hiatus. Great news for all you BBQ bogans. With The Feed’s editor-at-large preparing to cross the Mason-Dixon line into the land of great meats and terrible politics, what better time to take a look at the history and regional varieties of Amercan barbecue?

Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” (or invasion more correctly) of the Americas was an event that would change culinary traditions around the world. Imagine Italian food without tomatoes. Germany without chocolate. All of Europe without potatoes. What did Indian, Thai, and Vietnamese food taste like before the introduction of chillis? Columbus’ forays also gave birth to a new culinary tradition – American barbeque.

In the Caribbean, Columbus came across indigenous tribes cooking meat on green wood over an open flame. The wood burnt slowly and infused the meat with smoke. This technique was called barbacoa and it spread with the slave trade into the southern states of mainland America where it fused with various immigrant traditions and became known as barbeque. Today barbeque restaurants are all over America – from New York, to Seattle, from Florida to New Mexico. But the four main varities of barbeque are rooted in the places they evolved and are kept alive by passionaste locals.

The Carolinas

Barbeque enthusiasts from the Carolinas will tell you that real barbeque has to be pork. The arguement goes that pork was the meat of the poor and barbeque is essentially a poor person’s cuisine. Pigs were cheap to keep – farmers could pretty much let them roam free and they would forage for themselves in the nearest woodlands. Then the farmer could go and get himself a pig whenever the times called for a big hunk of protein. Feral pigs were relatively lean and so slow cooking was required to keep the meat tender. In North Carolina, British immigrants were responsible for adding sauce to the meat as it cooked, a step on from basting. The British also brought with them a taste for vinegar and thus the vinegar-based barbeque sauces of the region. In South Carolina, where there were more French and German immigrants, mustard-based sauces are more common.In the Carolinas you can expect either pork shoulder or whole hog roasts. Hush puppies are a must as is a glass of sweet tea.


Texas does things differently and it would be a brave or foolish man who would try to tell a Texan that their slow-cooked beef brisket isn’t real barbeque. The meat is seasoned simply with salt and pepper and no sauce is added. The brisket is left to do the talking all on its own. Smoked for twelve hours or more until the meat is wobbly with rendered fat, charred on the outside, deliciously sweet. Links, or sausages, are also a common feature of texan barbeque, made from a mixture of beef and pork and spices and smoked over hickory or cherry wood.


Memphis is a town in love with ribs. Memphis sits on the Mississippi Delta and was once an major port town. Residents had access to many far-flung ingredients ike spices and mollasses not available in less cosmopolitan areas. Memphis barbeque is all about the pig: shoulder, butts, and ribs. No sauce is added during cooking but barbeque sauces are always on the table at th city’s many barbeque restaurants. Sauce recipes are fiercely guarded as are the spice mixes pitmasters use for their dry rubs.

Kansas City

Kansas City is also a river port town like Memphis and sits on the banks of the Missouri River. The barbeque here is derived from Memphis with its sweet and spicey barbque sauces and rubs. But unlike Memphis it doesn’t stricly keep to pork but also offers beef and other meats. The sauce is thicker and even sweeter. Like in Memphis, barbeque in Kansas City is primarily a cuisine pioneered and maintained by black Americans, and grew out of poor, segregated neighbourhoods.


Tickets for Meatstock go on sale on October 1st, with all ticketing pricing and information available at



Photo by Jacob Stone on Unsplash

About the Author

David Wrigley

David is a writer and musician from Kemureti/ Cambridge. He has been published in Noble Rot, Nourish Magazine, Turbine|Kapohau, New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, and is currently working on his first novel. He has done his time in restaurants in Aotearoa and the UK. Oh, yes. He has done his time.

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