Alabama versus Auburn is probably the most vocal debate that regularly takes place in this state. Politics and religion can easily stir up passionate feelings and discourse as well.
But if you truly want to get tongues wagging (and lips smacking), then start talking about barbecue.
Sure, we like fried chicken and catfish and all manner of butter-soaked veggies. But we absolutely looooove barbecue. And it seems like every meat-eater out there has a favorite barbecue joint that is unquestionably the best in the business. To suggest otherwise can cause tempers to flare faster than a pitmaster’s fire.
This is the case throughout Alabama and beyond. From Kansas City to Memphis, Texas to North Carolina, regions throughout the country lay claim to having the quintessential Q. It is a disagreement that even extends to how the food is spelled. Is it barbeque or barbecue? Bar-B-Que or simply BBQ? (AP Style says barbecue.)
“Everybody has their own idea as to what the best barbecue is, going all the way back to childhood,” says Chris Lilly, pitmaster and one of the partners at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, which has been serving up the tasty meat treat since 1925. “In the South, we’re all about comfort food, and barbecue is certainly that.”
Barbecue historians (yes, they actually exist) trace the origins of the food in this country to the Caribbean, where — because of favorable weather — it has been a common practice for centuries to slow-cook meat for several hours outdoors over a wooden platform. Spanish explorers used the word “barbacoa” to describe this style of cooking and the meal it provided, then brought the concept with them to what is now the United States.
Once here, barbecue initially gained traction in the South because the region has an abundance of the two main ingredients: hickory trees for the fire and pigs.
“That’s a pretty good combination,” says Van Sykes, owner of Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q in Bessemer and son of the restaurant’s namesake founder. “Before all the interstate transportation, you just ate whatever was available to you in that area. And for Alabama, barbecue was sort of like finding coal and iron ore in Birmingham to make steel.”
Barbecue became particularly popular among Black communities, which embraced the social aspect of gathering together while slowly cooking a large amount of food. In fact, Van Sykes says that is how his father first learned to barbecue.
“It was an African American art,” Sykes says. “My daddy learned in the 1920s from a Black man who just dug a pit in the ground, then figured out how to control the fire. That’s the craft of it all. It’s almost engineering.”
Indeed, for hardcore barbecue aficionados, the act of cooking the meat can be as appetizing as the finished product. This isn’t merely tossing some burgers and hot dogs on the grill for 15 minutes. This is an all-day (and even overnight) process that involves low heat and plenty of patience. It is, in essence, the basic origin of cooking. Meat smoking over a flame.
“It’s all about the wood-burning pit, and smoke coming out of the chimney. If there ain’t smoke, it ain’t real,” says David Maluff, who owns Birmingham-based Full Moon Bar-B-Que with his brother Joe. “It just creates this aroma that is amazing.
“But it’s hard to manage a pit. It’s easier to put something in the oven and pull it out. Working the pit is not something you can just jump on and do right away. You have to know the temperature of the fire, how it works. You have to take your time. You can’t run late and have that meat ready in an hour.”
Lilly, who is married to the great-granddaughter of Bob Gibson, agrees. He has been working at the restaurant for more than 30 years, and he is now teaching two of his children the tricks of the barbecue trade.
“It takes a long time to learn how to cook great barbeque. There is a lot of skill to it,” Lilly says. “Whereas most foods you can whip up in 20 or 30 minutes, you have to put a lot of time and love into barbecue. You have to know what you’re doing, how to manage your fire. It’s less like cooking and more like an art.”
But while the meat obviously needs to be moist and tender, that element rarely is what creates such passionate disagreements among the barbecue faithful. Rather, it is the sauce, be it traditional tomato-based or tangier mustard-based or even the mayonnaise-based white sauce made popular by Big Bob Gibson.
“What was a game-changer was when people started making barbecue sauce,” Sykes says. “Before that, people were pretty much cooking the same thing. Now you have an identity to go with your meat.”
It is an identity that can create devout followers. This, in turn, has helped establish barbecue’s widespread appeal. So many choices, and nearly everybody has an opinion on which one is best. Even acclaimed Birmingham restauranteur Frank Stitt, a James Beard Award winner, once declared that the outside-cut pork at Full Moon was one of the top five dishes to eat in Birmingham.
“What more do you want than having the best chef in the South saying he comes here and enjoys our barbecue,” Maluff says with a smile.
Of course, it probably wouldn’t take long to find somebody with a different opinion. Again, that is one of the wonderful things about barbecue. We find our favorites and faithfully stick with them, year after year after year.
“It’s a generational thing,” Sykes says. “I know 40-year-olds who first came in here as kids. People will take photos of their baby’s first trip to Bob Sykes, just to get a little barbeque sauce on their lips. They talk about how their granddaddy used to bring them here.
“You find those people who like your barbecue, and they’ll keep coming back. You don’t have to be everything, every day to everybody. You can just be the barbecue guy.”
And in Alabama, that’s more than enough.
Cary Estes and Art Meripol are Birmingham-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Business Alabama.