If, in your barbecue quests, you've been focused on Texas brisket or Memphis' dry pork rubs, or rhapsodizing over Kansas City's signature burnt ends, you may have overlooked a style of barbecue that's less ballyhooed but every bit as tasty: Alabama barbecue.
If Alabama isn't the first place that pops to mind when you think of the meaty delights of a perfect pulled pork sandwich or a rack of ribs with the kind of succulent, sticky sauce that stains your fingers for the rest of the day, it's understandable. But it's easily a contender for the highest concentration of great barbecue joints in the country, partially because Alabama doesn’t have as defined a regional style as Memphis or Kansas City. To the purebred styles of elsewhere in the South, Alabama is kind of a mutt. You can something from just about every style in the state: whole hog or just the shoulder, dry or wet ribs, sliced or pulled pork, and both the vinegar and mustard based sauce favored in the Carolinas and the sweeter tomato and molasses strain more popular in Tennessee.
Though the styles of barbecue may be mixed, the importance of the dish is integral to the culinary identity of Alabama. If you bring up ribs or sauce with an Alabamian, you'll quickly be pulled into an argument about where the best offerings are—Archibald's BBQ in Tuscaloosa, where the proprietors sell their vinegary sauce in gallon milk jugs, is a serious contender, as is the regional chain Dreamland BBQ, which serves ribs, no-nonsense style, with a side of white bread and a roll of paper towels. (The pit once had signs that read "no coleslaw, no potato salad, don't ask," but has since loosened up on the sides front.) In Birmingham, there's newcomer Saw’s BBQ duking it out with Full Moon Bar-B-Q and Jim 'N Nick's. There are so many prized barbecue locations, in fact, that it’s become a state-wide tourist attraction. This February, the Alabama Department of Tourism declared 2015 to be the "Year of Alabama Barbecue."
The idea, explained state tourism representative Brian Jones, came from a tournament-style barbecue bracket in 2012, in which the department asked Alabamians to vote for their favorite barbecue restaurant. The competition got attention worldwide and attracted more than 81,000 voters. (Jim 'N Nicks in Birmingham won the top honor.) "What really impressed us was how passionate voters got about their favorite barbecue places," Jones said. "They would send us all kinds of comments about why their place was the best and other places didn't know real barbecue and on and on. In turns out that barbecue is second only to college football in Alabama for heated debate. It was so popular that we decided we needed to devote a year just to barbecue."
The most distinctive element about Alabama barbecue, aside from its eclecticism, is its white sauce—a mixture of vinegar, mayonnaise, apple juice, and cayenne pepper—that some local pits offer as a tangy accompaniment to ribs or chicken. It was originally developed at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, a small town in the north of the state, and quickly became popular. Big Bob’s dips the whole chicken in the sauce, though other pits are more conservative, providing it as more of an accompaniment. "Once you taste the white sauce and the smoked flavor you will never be the same,” Jones said. "I grew up in Decatur and it's the only way I will eat barbecue chicken."
Jonathan Tucker, who owns Rusty’s BBQ in Leeds Alabama, agrees. "It pairs really well with turkey, also, but it actually goes great on just about anything you want to put it on," he said. "My favorite use is as a condiment on a bacon and egg sandwich for breakfast, and it also makes a great salad dressing for coleslaw or tomato cucumber salad."
The red sauce versus white sauce debate is one of many hotly contested topics in the Alabama barbecue world. There’s also wet versus dry ribs, and cooking the meat in a pit versus in a smoker. "Old school places like Bob Sykes Barbecue have been cooking their barbecue in a brick pit since 1957 and wouldn’t dream about doing it any other way," Jones said. "Other restaurants cook all of their meat in barrel smokers and swear by that. Then you have the whole debate over which is even the best type of barbecue to begin with—pulled pork, a rack of ribs or chicken."
For those on the hunt for the best places, there’s now a barbecue-themed road trip that the state tourism board has laid out, as well as an Alabama BBQ Trail iPhone app featuring 75 restaurants in 52 cities. (The app will also alert you when you’re within 20 miles of a barbecue joint.) According to Tucker, it's easy to spot a good place in Alabama, even without the help of technology.
"A good Bar-B-Q spot will have smoke coming from the chimney early in the morning," Tucker said. "They should also make their own sauce. If it tastes like Kraft, it probably is, and that’s a shame. And if you look in the parking lot, there should be luxury cars parked right next to beat up work trucks."
The tourism board is also instituting an "Alabama Barbecue Hall of Fame" that will distribute plaques to the best examples of the style in the state. But for those who would rather try some of the delights of white sauce at home, here’s a recipe to bring a little bit of Decatur into your kitchen.
Chris Lilly's White Sauce [Printed with permission from Alabama Barbecue: Delicious Road Trip]
Four-time world barbecue champion Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson dunks chicken portions in his sauce before serving. You can too. This is one of his favorite versions.
- 2 cups mayonnaise
- 1 cup distilled white vinegar
- ½ cup apple juice
- 2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
- 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Combine all ingredients and blend well. Keep refrigerated in an airtight container up to 2 weeks