THE crowning achievement of the fine Southern art of barbecue.
Barbecue, as a noun, in the American South, is almost always pork. Only Texans throw beef on a grill on an open flame and call it barbecue. Opinions differ as to whether or not to call chicken cooked over flame as barbecue. I personally think it's fine, so long as the meat itself has been barbecued. Because the fine art of barbecuing is NOT throwing meat over an open flame and letting the fire lick at the meat until it's a half-charred mass of well-done tissue. It's the fine art of encasing meat, flame and smoke in a closed container so that the meat cooks over indirect, smoky heat with a significant source of moisture in the air, so that the fatty tissue in the meat gently melts and bastes the muscle bundles, which do not coil up and toughen but soften, become sweet, and delicately tender. Indirect heat, 200F tops, for several hours. The perfect excuse to sit by a smoker with a case of beer and occasionally throw more wood onto the firebox and the third best way to spend a lazy Saturday when there's no chores.
So what exactly does a Southerner slather onto the meat in order to further enhance the flavor salvo for which he has just said Grace? In Tennessee, sometimes they don't. Order your ribs or pulled pork "dry" and it just comes with the meat seasonings they rubbed into the pork. But if you order em "wet" you'll typically get a sauce, slightly sweet and sour with smoky and hot undertones. The Great State of Georgia is similarly blessed with smooth, heat-and-sour, smoky sauces that are pepper, mustard, vinegar and smoke based.
But there are regional differences. Up in Virginia, where I once bought an old scythe for $25 to hang up on the wall having retired from that to better tools to mow of a lawn, it's mostly a thin, vinegary sauce, with the emphasis on the sourness of the vinegar to counterbalance the sweetness of the meat. Down in the Carolinas there's more of an emphasis on the mustards - their sauces tend to more towards a sickly yellow color - but still highly flavorful in spite of looking like the contents of an ill baby's first diaper. It's the Carolina sauces that Wal-Mart pulled in that furore over the Rebel Flag some years ago - and though I don't support the politics of the man whose business they boycotted, the general absence of a Carolina-type sauce on the average store shelf is sad.
It's almost like you draw a triangle over the south - and as you head north into the Virginias, there's more vinegar, down into the Carolinas, more mustard, and towards Tennesee, more peppers and herbs. Of course, different counties differ, and indeed, different families differ - with many men having a "secret recipe" with a "secret ingredient". I've heard people use brown sugar, butter, peanut oil, molasses, steak sauce, ketchup, and God alone knows what else.
But then again, good barbecue is like good food, which is like a good life. Things in balance. I'm reasonably certain that these regional differences arose because of regional availability of ingredients and the peculiar characteristics of the woods used to smoke the food. Truly good barbecue doesn't really need it - damned if I can remember the name of the place, but there's what looks like a large hunting cabin somewhere off the highway towards Augusta, maybe thirty or forty minutes outside Stone Mountain, where they do some of the most delicate, sweet meat I've ever tasted, and to my mind ruin it by servin' bottles of the thinnest, weakest, celery-salt tastin' sauce on their tables. (If you want to see the place I'm talkin' about, they are quite proud that they made a sequence of the movie "Sweet Home Alabama" with Reese Witherspoon in it in the place.)
Likewise, I've seen some pretty mediocre meat try to be elevated by a beautiful balance of smoke, mustard and pepper, with a tangy zip of sour, only to find the texture of the meat and the lack of sweetness just made the whole thing sad. I of course rectify this by occasionally buying meat from one place and sauce from another "to-go", but I digress. But the point is well made - there's no real definitive barbecue - hickory wood for smoking? Apple wood? Pecan? Ribs? Rib tips? Pork shoulder? - therefore there can't be a real definitive barbecue sauce. It's there to balance the meat, and the meat is there to balance the sauce. You can't have the one without the other, and the South is a glorious food lovin' paradise of multiple variations on that theme. Remember - slow cooked sweet tender pork meat - some kind of sour and heat to match.
Of course, if you get out further West from the South and head into Tejas, they make a tomato based barbecue sauce. But then again, it ain't for servin' with barbecue, it's more of a beef carne asada con "salsa Gringo del tomatoes". But then again, what they choose to do in Tejas is their own affair. It just ain't (by what we understand here to be barbecue) barbecue, is all.