The Deep South’s most overlooked barbecue states

Atlanta (CNN) — Barbecue may be one of the most all-American foods, but there’s definitely a pecking order to which places in the USA are most exalted for it.

Heinz captured the hierarchy a few years ago when it introduced four regional barbecue sauce styles: Texas, Carolina, Memphis and Kansas City.

While those are all notable hotbeds — a Mount Rushmore of barbecue — there are other places that deserve to be included. In writing my new book, “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America,” I came to believe that the pork barbecue belt of the Deep South has been taken for granted compared with the big four — especially Georgia and Alabama.

Here, then, is an itinerary to remind us what great barbecue lies between the Carolinas and Memphis.


Poole's Bar-B-Q in the North Georgia mountains boasts some interesting artwork outside.

Poole’s Bar-B-Q in the North Georgia mountains boasts some interesting artwork outside.

George Winn

That cult cooker
Georgia produces two of the top barbecue cookers in America: Char-Broil grills (out of Columbus) and the Big Green Egg.
At Egg headquarters in Atlanta (3786 DeKalb Technology Parkway), a small museum tells the story of how Ed Fisher encountered Asian rice cookers while serving with the US Navy overseas during the 1960s. Inspired by their example, he developed a domed smoker with ceramic insulation that was big, green and shaped like an egg.
The Big Green Egg developed a cult following, which is on full display when the company hosts thousands of enthusiasts for EGGfests across the country.

Real Georgia barbecue
Some people think Georgia has no identifiable barbecue style, especially compared with iconic specialties such as Texas brisket and Carolina whole hog.

The people at Fresh Air Bar-B-Que in Jackson, 50 miles south of Atlanta, would beg to differ. Fresh Air (1164 Highway 42 South) opened in 1929 and has been serving chopped pork cooked over hard wood for nine decades.

It comes with a vinegary tomato sauce and a side of Brunswick stew, a spicy soup of smoked meats and vegetables that appears on more barbecue menus in the Peach State than anywhere else. This is Georgia barbecue.

Barbecue playgrounds
Two barbecue places in the North Georgia mountains sport fanciful decor that’s at least as crucial to their popularity as their meat.

At Poole’s Bar-B-Q in East Ellijay (164 Craig Street), motorists driving by on the Appalachian Highway can see hundreds of plywood pigs bearing names on the hillside behind the restaurant. It looks like a graveyard for porkers. The much-photographed display was the idea of owner Oscar Poole, a natural-born promoter with the soul of a folk artist.
An hour northeast, Jim’s Smokin’ Que outside Blairsville (4971 Gainesville Highway) has a barbecue-themed miniature golf course called Pig Gone Amuck, where competitors putt around propane tanks painted pink and made up to look like cartoon hogs. They’re pretty cute, which might not be something you want to dwell on as you’re biting into a pulled pork sandwich.
Out of this world
“First in space, best in taste,” say the T-shirts at Fincher’s Bar-B-Q, a Macon institution since 1935. There are four locations; go to the original (3947 Houston Avenue), in an industrial area on the south side, where they display a letter from NASA certifying that Fincher’s was the first barbecue in space.

Astronaut Sonny Carter, a Macon native, requested that it be taken aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1989, so Fincher’s sent some pork and sauce to Mission Control to be freeze-dried like Tang orange drink. You can see some of the leftover space barbecue at the restaurant, looking a bit suspect in its freeze-dried pouch.

Beach barbecue
Southern Soul, on St. Simons Island (202 Demere Road), started out in a converted gas station and quickly became one of the most highly regarded barbecue places in the South, earning the top spot in Southern Living magazine’s rankings.

Another reason to visit the area: the marker claiming that Brunswick stew was first served nearby on July 2, 1898. The marker, at a southbound rest stop on I-95 near the city of Brunswick, consists of an old black pot atop a stone base. Alas, the suspiciously specific claim is probably baseless. Food historians believe Virginians were making Brunswick stew decades before 1898.


Dreamland in Tuscaloosa serves some of America's best ribs.

Dreamland in Tuscaloosa serves some of America’s best ribs.

Kevin Glackmeyer/Courtesy Alabama Tourism Department

That funny-looking sauce
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in the north Alabama city of Decatur (1715 Sixth Avenue SE) created one of the true novelties of barbecue: Alabama white sauce.

Shortly after the pit opened in 1925, Gibson concocted a peppery, cidery mayonnaise sauce to use as a dip with smoked chicken. Dozens of barbecue places in Alabama and elsewhere replicated it, and now people use it on pork and other meats.

Chris Lilly, the restaurant’s pit master, has won the grand championship at the prestigious Memphis in May barbecue contest four times. For all his accomplishments, people always ask him for the recipe for that strange white sauce.

Rib city
Barbecue lovers know Tuscaloosa, the home of the University of Alabama, for something besides the Crimson Tide; it’s also home to a couple of the best rib joints in America.

Dreamland, in the Jerusalem Heights neighborhood near campus (5535 15th Avenue East), was founded in 1959 by John “Big Daddy” Bishop, who claimed that the idea for the restaurant and its famous tangy sauce came to him in a dream. Bishop is being inducted posthumously into the Barbecue Hall of Fame in Kansas City this year.
Across the Black Warrior River in Northport, Archibald’s (1211 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) serves slabs of ribs in an unsightly shack discolored from soot. Don’t let the ramshackle appearance fool you; in 2017, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples named Archibald’s ribs as the No. 1 college football meal in America.
Road food
It’s hard to believe now, but we didn’t always have barbecue restaurants. Golden Rule, a Birmingham barbecue chain with a curiously biblical name, was one of the first, opening in 1891 to service stagecoaches on the road between Birmingham and Atlanta.

The original location was in Irondale near the flagship restaurant just off I-20 (2504 Crestwood Boulevard), where they serve chopped pork in the Alabama style as they have for more than a century and a quarter.

Pit proud
When you walk in Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q in Bessemer, 15 miles southwest of Birmingham, you immediately confront one of the most gorgeous fireplace-in-the-wall barbecue pits you’ve ever seen. Many barbecue places hide their cooking area out back, because they’re hot and can be dangerous.

Bob Sykes (1724 9th Avenue North) puts it front and center, where you can see the miraculous alchemy of barbecue occur before your eyes. In business since 1957, Sykes is widely considered one of the definitive Alabama barbecue restaurants.

Jim Auchmutey is the author of “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America” and co-author of “The Ultimate Barbecue Sauce Cookbook.” He lives in Georgia and descends from a long line of pitmasters.

This article originally appeared here