A taste of Alabama barbecue: Where pork, dry rub and white sauce are king
A pink neon pig has been tempting beach trip drivers since 1983 going through Troy, Alabama, into Barbara McQuagge’s The BBQ House. The food brought them back.
“You can’t get in no hurry when it comes to barbecue,” said Betty Culver, manager and cook at The BBQ House. “Our ribs take six hours, and they’re the best around. They just fall off the bone tender.”
Chris Lilly, vice president, executive chef and partner of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, said pork is king in Alabama. “You ask for a barbecue sandwich in Alabama, you’re going to get a pork sandwich.”
Lilly, whose wife is the great-granddaughter of late barbecue legend Big Bob Gibson, believes Alabama’s barbecue tastes stem from the state’s proximity to both eastern North Carolina-style vinegar-based sauces and dry rubs from Memphis.
“We definitely have influence from, and have influenced, both of those regions,” Lilly said.
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He has a lot of respect for the legendary dry-rubbed ribs from the original Dreamland BBQ in Tuscaloosa. “I think another thing that we have to hang our hat on (in Alabama) is the direct fire-grilled rib that they do,” Lilly said.
Hancock’s Bar-B-Que in Selma, in business since 1973, opts for a dry rub on its meats said third-generation owner Emily Hancock. “We are definitely not a wet barbecue establishment,” she said.
Along with serving ribs, most places serve pork pulled from the shoulder, also known as Boston butt.
Scott Chambliss has been cooking pork shoulders for 30 years and has owned Champ’s Barbecue in Wetumpka for 17. “It costs a little more to do it that way, but I think that’s the best cut of meat,” he said. “After you cook it, you take all that fat out and it stays nice and moist.”
Chipped pork shoulder, which is finer than chopped, and a mild red sauce rule the menu at Dobb’s Famous Bar-B-Que, which first opened in Tallassee in 1910, moving to Dothan in 1948.
“When we put it on the pit, it rotates and the fats from the other meat cooking baste it,” said Dobb’s owner John Lindley.
Alabama doesn’t go whole hog. But after pork, whole chicken comes in a close second. “I think in Alabama, more than any other state, chicken is right up there with pork,” Lilly said.
While pork is often served with a tangy red sauce, the sauce the state is best known for is made for chicken. We’re talking Alabama white sauce, of course.
At Big Bob Gibson, they split chickens open, fire them up, and then “baptize” the birds in their 1925 family recipe white sauce.
It’s been 97 years since Gibson created his iconic mayonnaise-based mixture. It's from a time before his restaurant, when Gibson was selling food from his backyard.
His restaurant still uses some of his techniques. “We’re still using the brick-style coffin pits, with the counterweighted metal doors (and) chimneys on both sides,” Lilly said. “It’s definitely still old-style barbecue.”
His white sauce also lives on, with the recipe one of Alabama’s worst-kept secrets. Two years ago, Lilly even offered it up in an online grilling video.
Aside from that iconic sauce, here's how to make sure your barbecue has that classic Alabama flavor.
Let the meat do the talking: Alabama’s barbecue sandwiches are usually minimal on extras. Maybe a pickle or two and some kind of red sauce. Putting slaw on barbecue is more of a Carolinas thing, said Hancock, who used to live there. "Everything there has slaw on it,” she said.
That hickory flavor: If there’s a king of Alabama barbecue wood, it’s hickory, though some mix in pecan or oak. “Typically, barbecue restaurants use a wood that is common in that region,” said Lilly, who believes hickory is best for pork and chicken.
Don't over-smoke the meat: Lilly said home grillers should think of wood as a seasoning to be used with charcoal, instead of the main fuel source. “You can definitely do a lot of damage to good barbecue, over-smoking it with wood and making it a little bit too bitter,” Lilly said.