Barbecue. The word brings to mind images of backyard cooking, or images of smoked ribs, or of brisket. Although barbecue is not originally an English word, it describes a food that is quintessentially of the American South.
Barbecue comes from the Spanish barbacoa, which is believed to have been derived from a similar native Caribbean word. When someone from the “South” mentions barbecue, they mean a style of cooking that involves long, slow, cooking over low heat, usually with wood and wood smoke. Originally, this involved burying a whole pig and cooking it for a day or more. Cooking a hamburger over charcoal is not barbecue to someone from the South.
The South, for the purposes of barbecue, is that part of the U.S. along and south of the 36th Parallel, and east of New Mexico. Kansas City is a barbecue outlier. It is not really in the South, although people from Kansas City believe their geographic location relative to the South shows their relationship to the world of barbecue. On top. While Kansas City no doubt produces some of the best barbecue in the country, it is but one of myriad places with great barbecue.
There is good barbecue in many parts of this country, and certainly in places other than the South. The purpose of this article is not to impugn the barbecue from other places, or from other places around the world, but barbecue is ingrained in the culture of the South in a way it is not elsewhere.
Most societies around the world have some form of cooking which resembles barbecue. Long, slow cooking over fire is a simple and convenient way to cook a lot of food. However, no where else do smoke and seasoning and sauce combine in such a way.
Barbecue is defined by its parts. Meat, in certain cuts. Smoke. Seasoning. Sauce. Time.
If you listen to people who know how to make good barbecue, you will hear the phrase “low and slow” repeated over and over. This means good barbecue is cooked at low heat for a long time. This low and slow cooking, with smoke, is what gives barbecue its flavor. Low and slow was not developed to impart unique flavor to barbecue. It is the other way around. Barbecue is food of and for the people. Barbecue is not fancy. Barbecue generally is made from less-expensive cuts of meat. You have to cook these cuts of meat a long time to make them tender and flavorful. Cooking for a long time at low heat dissolves collagen: making brisket so tender you can cut it with a fork.
Barbecue, especially competitive barbecue, is made up of specific cuts of pork and beef, while the competitors usually, but do not have to, use chicken thighs. The cuts of pork used are the shoulder and ribs. Beef means brisket. Some places around the country also include sausage, beef ribs, or other cuts.
Different regions of the country have different styles of cooking these cuts of meat. Everyone is sure their style is the best. You might start a fist fight asking whether Memphis or Kansas City style is best. The Carolinas employ thin, vinegar-based sauces, while Kansas City uses a sweeter, tomato-based sauce. Memphis ribs typically have no sauce, as they are dry-rubbed. Brisket is king in Texas, with a nice crust, a smoke ring, and amazing flavor. I could write a million words about how to differentiate barbecue styles.
This is a magazine about local food, though, and here in Oklahoma, we are blessed with wonderful barbecue, but people from elsewhere don’t know it. Oklahoma never makes the list of best barbecue in the country. This is odd, because Oklahoma has always had fantastic barbecue. Oklahoma is on the triangle connecting Kansas City, Memphis, and east Texas, three places with famous barbecue. Is Oklahoma barbecue better than barbecue from other places? That question always comes down to personal preference. I place Oklahoma among the very best places for barbecue in this country, and I am not alone.
Anthony Bourdain made a list of thirteen places around the world to eat before you die. It includes one place in Kansas City. Kansas City is arguably the best place in America for barbecue. Picking the best barbecue in Kansas City is a fool’s errand. Nonetheless, the place in Kansas City widely considered the best was once called Oklahoma Joe’s but is now Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. Jeff and Joy Stehney and Joe Davidson started Oklahoma Joe’s in Stillwater, Oklahoma, following success in barbecue competitions. They later opened a branch in Kansas City. The Stillwater restaurant has since closed. Anthony Bourdain put Oklahoma Joe’s Kansas City restaurant on his list along with places such as Per Se, el bulli, and the French Laundry. It is the only barbecue restaurant on the list.
Among aficionados, Oklahoma barbecue is difficult to define, but another celebrity chef, Rick Bayless, gave the best description I have heard:
“What I do believe is that most people don’t think of Oklahoma barbecue as unique – in contrast to the kind found in Texas or Kansas City or Memphis or North Carolina. In fact, this barbecue is usually described in terms of what it’s not: it’s not as saucy as barbecue from Kansas City, though both places commonly use hickory wood, and what sauce it has can be similar to K.C.’s with ketchup as a main ingredient. It’s not as tangy as Memphis barbecue and not as vinegary as what they serve in North Carolina. It’s not as dry as most classic Texas barbecue, and it’s not inclusive of just one kind of meat: both pork ribs and large cuts of beef (like brisket) play a major role. What it has in common with the other well-known barbecue styles of this country is that its tradition has existed for almost as long as theirs and was likely created by the same combination of European immigrants and black workers who came to the area and looked for good, cheap food when they arrived.”
Rick Bayless is a James Beard winner who has famous restaurants in Chicago. Frontera Grill and Toplobampo are two. He knows Oklahoma barbecue because he grew up in Oklahoma City, where his parents owned Hickory House barbecue restaurant.
The hybrid nature of Oklahoma barbecue (taking the best features of many nearby styles) may be the reason that Oklahomans dominate the competition barbecue circuit. Oklahoma’s location in the Goldilocks spot of barbecue may give us a built-in advantage. Unlike most types of food, you probably can’t buy the best barbecue in America. You find the best barbecue at competitions.
Larry Olmstead, a competition barbecue judge and writer, argues convincingly in an excellent Forbes article that the world of barbecue is upside down from that of other foods:
“This is one of the oddities of American barbecue. If you want to eat the finest haute French cuisine (or most other foods) you will undoubtedly find it as a restaurant, either a Michelin 3-Star gastronomic temple in Paris or Lyon or a place by Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas. The world’s best Italian fare is found at restaurants in Modena, Florence, Milan, Rome and Cortona in Italy. That’s because the natural evolution in most foods drives the best cooks to restaurants, but then again, unlike barbecue, most foods don’t have a highly organized series of competitive events that have been perfected over decades solely for the purpose of identifying the very best that can be made. Even owners of the most famous barbecue restaurants in America will concede (usually off the record) that what they cook for competition is markedly better than what they serve in their restaurants.”
The de facto governing body for competition barbecue is the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS). Larry Olmstead compares competitive barbecue to golf. He says the KCBS is like the USGA (United States Golf Association) and the four big barbecue competitions are like the four golf majors. Olmstead says the American Royal barbecue competition in Kansas City is like the U.S. Open, while the invitation-only Jack Daniels is like the Masters.
The KCBS publishes annual rankings of the best barbecue teams based on points won in competitions. The teams on this list are amazing barbecue cooks. There are teams from all over the country, but four of the top fifteen teams this year are from Oklahoma, including the past champion and current leader, Clark Crew BBQ (Clark Crew BBQ achieved a perfect score for brisket in the American Royal in 2013 and first place ribs in 2016). No other state comes close to having this many top teams. In 2015, the winner and runnerup in the KCBS were both from Oklahoma. Clark Crew BBQ was first, and The American Dream BBQ finished second. One of the other top fifteen teams this year is Butcher BBQ. Butcher BBQ also has a barbecue stand in Wellston that is amazing, and is one of the few spots you can actually buy competition-grade barbecue.
The next time you eat barbecue in Oklahoma, think of the excellent barbecue tradition here, and be proud of your fellow Oklahomans, who are the equal of the best chefs in the world.