Tennessee barbecue is a thing of beauty. Sure, I’m from Tennessee and perhaps a little biased, but my home state doesn’t always get the credit it deserves on the smoked meat front. When Tennessee barbecue is mentioned in conversation, most people think of Memphis. It’s for good reason, since Memphis has hundreds of barbecue joints churning out meat on the regular. But a long history of barbecue is spread throughout the wide state, and although there are a number of regional differences, there are some important commonalities. One of them being that it’s all delicious, and the others are listed below.
By and large, pork is the one true king of Tennessee barbecue. The cuts can differ across the state and by venue, but there’s one thing the entire state can agree upon: pork makes the best barbecue. Whole hog used to be standard, and can still be found being smoked in big barbecue pits, especially in rural areas. I have fond memories of church picnics where a whole hog was served; someone with the know-how had started smoking it a solid 24 hours before meal time. It came simply, tossed with perhaps a little vinegar and seasoning, chopped and shredded. It was supremely porky, smoky, and moist. Barbecue sauce was optional, and came in hot and regular, and people ate it on buns or with beans and cornbread or hoecakes and coleslaw.
Pork shoulder is perhaps more common now, typically slow-cooked and shredded or chopped. Where you are will determine how it is served, but the cooking process is largely the same across the board. Pork ribs can also be found, and are typically sauced more than most.
Tennessee barbecue is what many aficionados would call true barbecue. None of that slap it on a hot grill with a thick layer of sauce crap—this barbecue is a whole day affair. Think of it as barbecue the noun, not the verb.
This means the meat is cooked slow and low, the fat slowly liquefying and basting the meat, and smoke flavor gradually permeating the outer edge. It’s a labor of love, and pitmasters tend their barbecue with care. A whole hog can take a full day or more, and a shoulder and other cuts take the better part of a day. Undercook the pork and it will be chewy, overcook it and it will be stringy. The magic is in between—juicy and flavorful, and easily falling off the bone.
A quintessential element to Tennessee barbecue is wood smoking. Hickory is the most common wood used, but sometimes applewood and even whiskey barrel staves turn up. Many pitmasters burn their wood between a sandwich of metal sheeting until they turn into hot coals, which is what the meat cooks over. No matter how they do it, the basic requirement is smoldering wood, kicking up fragrant smoke and infusing the meat in the process. It can form a reddish ring near the exterior of the meat, a smoke ring of sorts. It gives the slow-cooked meat a smoky sweet flavor, complimenting the flavor or the meat without overpowering it.
To sauce or not to sauce, that is the question. In many barbecue areas of the country, sauce is not a question, it’s a known fact. In Tennessee, it’s common to be served pulled pork that’s just lightly tossed in a vinegar and peppercorn mixture and placed on a bun or plate. There will more than likely be a couple of bottles on the table with sauce in them, perhaps a hot version and a mild version. These are often vinegar-based as well, along with spices and a few other things. Whether you use them or not is up to you.
Sure, there are plenty of spots that will automatically douse your meat with a barbecue sauce of some kind, from thinner, vinegar sauces to sticky-sweet BBQ sauces, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the option is nice, and it’s a testament to the meat that it can stand up to eating it plain. Even ribs are often served plain (with a fragrant dry rub), or you can order them wet (with sauce).
To live in Tennessee or even visit for a while and not eat barbecue would be… difficult. And unusual. The sheer number of barbecue joints across the state is dizzying, and even the smallest towns have a few smoked meat options. Many places have been around for years (some over a hundred), and carry on family recipes and techniques that have been passed down for years. Even though there is plenty of the same pulled pork, there’s also variety. Establishments sometimes pride themselves on what they do differently, and you can find a wide range of sauces, smoking techniques, and serving methods. You can also find a large swath of people just trying to uphold tradition.
Just like many regional and popular foods, Tennessee barbecue has had its ups and downs. When electric ovens arrived on the scene and people began to really prize convenience, many old techniques were dropped by quick service restaurants. Indoor ovens replaced outdoor shed pits and piles of wood. Plenty of these more modern places still exist, some of them making good food, but people are beginning to look to the old tried and true cooking methods. A large number of new and old owners are returning to the backyard pit fueled by smoldering wood, and are making mighty fine barbecue in the process.
Laurel Randolph is a food and lifestyle writer hailing from Tennessee and living in Los Angeles. She enjoys cooking, baking and candlestick making. Tweet at her face: @laurelrandy.