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The ABCs of Alabama BBQ

Irondale’s Golden Rule Bar-B-Q and Grill opened in 1891 and is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Alabama.

Smoky, savory, and downright sacred—there’s not much the Yellowhammer State holds in higher regard than its pit-fired meats. 

“Barbecue is right up there with football,” says historian and associate lecturer at the University of Chattanooga Mark A. Johnson. He’d know. He literally wrote the book on the art form in Alabama. “Every small town, every neighborhood of every big city has its local place,” he says. “It’s where the community gets together. It’s something to rally around.” It’s also a lot of ’cue.

If the state’s dizzying array of flavors, sauces, superstar pitmasters, and iconic institutions has you feeling overwhelmed, don’t be. Just loosen that belt, strap on a bib, and get back to basics with the ABCs of Alabama BBQ (please note our list includes only the tastiest letters in the alphabet).

A — A lot!

State tourism officials reckon that Alabama boasts the most barbecue joints per capita in the country. They once asked folks to nominate local favorites online and received more than 300 unique entries. Had the contest allowed voting by mail, organizers estimate that number may have doubled.

B — Bark

The flavorful crust that forms where spice meets smoke is prized on pork shoulders. Direct-heat cooking in Alabama pits make for even chewier, more delectable edges.

C — Civil rights

Customers placing orders at the Brenda's Bar-B-Que window.

Brenda’s Bar-B-Q Pit has been smoking meats since 1942.

At family-run icons such as Lannie’s Bar-B-Q Spot in Selma and Brenda’s Bar-B-Que Pit in Montgomery, Black pitmasters fed the civil rights movement at its most critical points—and provided other essential resources, too. 

Sandwich stuffed with pulled pork from Brenda's Bar-B-Que.

Dig into a pulled pork sandwich from Brenda’s Bar-B-Q Pit.

Incidentally, both of these historic eateries also scored spots in the Alabama Barbecue Hall of Fame. 

You may also like: Epic Alabama road trips

D — Diversity

Some states and cities are synonymous with a single style—Kansas City means a molasses-and-tomato sauce, for example. But Alabama remains a microcosm of the South’s Barbecue Belt, drawing influences from its tastiest traditions.

In the western reaches, St. Louis–style spareribs come mopped with vinegary sauces typically found in North Carolina ’cue. In Birmingham, tomato-based sauces like those found in Tennessee take center stage—with spices added by the Greek immigrant community. And that’s not counting the state’s own unique flavor contribution (see the entry for M).

F — Festivals

There are plenty to choose from. Some, like the upcoming Railyard BBQ Brawl in Madison and the epic Poosa Q in Montgomery, give attendees the chance to see pro teams duke it out in Kansas City Barbecue Society–sanctioned competitions. More laid-back cook-offs like the Cahabaque at Birmingham’s Cahawba Brewing Company are just good places to eat great ’cue.  

G — Golden Rule

Sliced meat with a side of sauce at Golden Rule Bar-B-Q and Grill.

Opened in 1891, Irondale’s Golden Rule Bar-B-Q and Grill is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Alabama.

Golden Rule Bar-B-Q and Grill pit boss Mike Booker.

Golden Rule Bar-B-Q and Grill pit boss Mike Booker.

And according to the University of Chattanooga’s Johnson, it’s possibly the oldest barbecue joint in the U.S. 

H — Hickory

It’s the hardwood of choice for smoking meat across the state. 

You may also like: Best cheap eats in Alabama

I— “An Irresistible History of  Alabama Barbecue”

Johnson’s tome digs into the history and culture around the craft—from smoked meat’s impact on prewar politics and the civil rights movement to the private, rural barbecue clubs that keep old-school ’cue traditions alive today. 

L — Legends

Truly, there are too many to count, including many already mentioned elsewhere in the alphabet. From longtime pillars of the state’s barbecue community—think Van Sykes of Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q in Bessemer—to more recent rock stars like Mike Wilson of SAW’s, the state has no shortage of talent to choose from.

M — Mayo

Sign for Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, declaring "made in America."

It’s the signature ingredient in the tangy white sauce invented in 1925 by the patriarch of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur. 

Big Bob Gibson BBQ tray with sides of green beans, baked beans, and extra sauce.

Our state’s biggest contribution to America’s barbecue sauce lexicon still coats the family-run institution’s whole smoked chickens, though it’s just as good drizzled over other fresh-from-the-pit goodies.

N — Napkins

You’re going to need a bunch.

O — Open pit

Texans sing the praises of “low and slow,” or using closed smokers and offset heat boxes for their 14-hour-plus briskets. But peek in on many Alabama pitmasters and you’ll see someone hustling.

Direct cooking over hot coals means little downtime. We’re talking pork shoulders in as little as 3 or 4 hours and ribs in 90 minutes. They’re turning meat, rotating it through hot spots, and sweating buckets. “It’s a lot of work,” says Johnson. That also means Alabama ribs, for example, are more satisfyingly firm than fall-off-the-bone, he adds. “When you bite in, you see the toothmarks.”

P— Pork

Whether it’s pulled in Birmingham or ribs in Tuscaloosa, the state’s specialty is decidedly porcine. 

You may also like: Alabama cities where you should eat

Q — Quick

Barbecue was Alabama’s first convenience food. And while many of the state’s ubiquitous mom-and-pops now seem “off the beaten path,” that’s only because the beaten path changed. Pitmasters originally hung their shingles along major roadways and around mills and industrial sites to serve crowds of busy diners.  

R — Road trip

Those looking for a DIY meat-centric tour of the state have their work cut out for them. For a top-down approach, start with the North Alabama BBQ Trail,  which neatly maps out regional highlights.   

S — Sides

Slaw, beans, and potato salad? Sure. But it comes as no surprise that a state that nails the meat-and-three serves up side dishes with a bit more panache. Both the sweet potato fluff at Pruett’s Bar-B-Q in Gadsden and the famed half-moon cookies at Full Moon Bar-B-Que are on the state’s “100 Dishes to Eat” list.

T — Tuscaloosa

Sign over the entrance of "The Original Dreamland" BBQ restaurant.

Talk about having it all. Two titans of Alabama ’cue—Dreamland BBQ and Archibald & Woodrow’s BBQ—were born in the Tuscaloosa area.

Dreamland BBQ ribs, extra sauce, baked beans, and more food.

And many of the state’s most popular chains—think Moe’s Original, and Full Moon, among others—have outposts in Druid City, too.

Bonus: You can find the biggies within about a mile of each other, as the crow flies.

W — Whole Hog

Rodney Scott standing in front of the smoker at his restaurant.

Rodney Scott keeps whole-hog cooking alive. Courtesy Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ

With most pit-bound meat parceled out by shoulders, slabs, and butts these days, some call whole-hog cooking a dying art. Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ aims to keep that craft alive.

The restaurant’s eponymous South Carolina–raised pitmaster—only the second barbecue pro to win a James Beard Best Chef title—revived the practice on Birmingham’s restaurant scene in 2019 (with the help of homegrown ’cue royalty Nick Pihakis of Jim ’N Nick’s fame).

Z — Zzzzzz

The sound you will make after eating all of this glorious barbecue.

Travel pro and amateur foodie Jessica Fender once beat her kid brother at a brisket-smoking competition and still brags about it to this day. Follow her adventures at travelerbroads.com.

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