Introduction by Jake Adam York
It is only by cartography, law, and convention that Alabama is a state. From within, it reads like a perverse anthology in which the Appalachians give us a taste of the Carolinas, the Tennessee River guides a northern influence, the pine barrens continue the work of Georgia, the Black Belt gestures toward Mississippi, the coast combines Florida and Mississippi, and the Wiregrass gives you a sense of another world entirely.
So, it’s no wonder that you can find, in Alabama, almost any kind of barbecue. Whether the influence is Cherokee, Appalachian, Georgian, Mississippian, Floridian, Tennesseean, Texan, or just plain Alabamian, barbecue springs up everywhere, with significant variation.
Near Scottsboro, sandwiches may wear slaw, Carolina-style. Around Decatur, the chicken swims in a unique white sauce. In Birmingham, sauces tend more thickly, spiced by the hands and traditions of the city’s Greeks, laved on pork shoulder, pork butt, pork ribs, and even beef brisket. In east Alabama, the sauce goes orange, where mustard sharpens tomato in a thin vinegar, a delightfully acrid atmosphere for pork chopped or sliced or still on the slab.
There are some superstars, and each one represents something about its town of origin. Dreamland, begun outside of Tuscaloosa, championed ribs with a menu that once included only whole and half slabs, a rib sandwich, and tea—no cole slaw, no potato salad, don’t ask, as the signs once read—surely representative of rural Alabama, concentrating on the once-cheap, once-tough cut of the rib. Big Bob Gibson’s, centered in Decatur, offers an Appalachain taste for shoulder in one of the tenderest sandwiches anyone has ever made, but also presents north-central Alabama’s peculiar agricultural heritage with its numerous applications of chicken.
Most towns, however, like the state itself, reflect various influences, interests, and tastes. In Auburn, folks decamp into factions preferring Country’s almost obscene largesse (beef ribs appear beside the whole rest of the barbecue universe on their menu) or the Carolinian mustard shoulder sandwiches famous at The Barbecue House or the orange-sauced shoulders and ribs at Byron’s. In Gadsden, Pruett’s dominates the popular imagination, but one can also side with Barbecue Bob’s or with the more obscure Merrill’s, home of the #4 (whole habaneros chopped into pork and served on a bun without relief).
In Birmingham—well, in Birmingham, you can find whatever you like. Since 1920, more than 500 barbecue restaurants have opened in Birmingham, most erupting like slag-heaps around the city’s steel mills. Barbecue was Birmingham’s first convenience food, and today, in an era of imported Burger Kings and home-grown Chik-Fil-A’s, barbecue remains dominant, flourishing in local empires—including Golden Rule, Johnny Rays, Blue Moon, and Jim N’ Nicks—and in more singular enterprises, like Bob Sykes’s, Demetri’s, or Carlisle’s. Some of the famous joints—like Ollie’s, once center table in a segregation suit that proved the power of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—are gone, but new ones open all the time.
Carolinians and Tennesseans and Kansans brag about their barbecue meccas all the time, and I’ve eaten enough to know they’ve got evidence for their cases. Nevertheless, I can hardly imagine a better state for a lover of all things barbecue. If you’re willing to wander, willing to try, willing to look, you’ll find whatever you’re looking for right here in Alabama.
– Jake Adam York
Jake Adam York is a poet, SFA member, and bbq-lover. You can see more of his work here.