Alabama has the best barbecue. But, what is Alabama barbecue?

By Mark A. Johnson, author of An Irresistible History of Alabama Barbecue: From Wood Pit to White Sauce

Alabamians love their barbecue and boast about its excellence, but they do not even agree with one another about how to define it.

                “When I think of Alabama barbecue, I think of pork shoulders and barbecued chicken, and barbecued chicken always comes with white sauce,” states Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Q in Decatur. In the 1920s, the namesake of the restaurant, Bob Gibson, invented white sauce.

                “I won’t even say Alabama-style barbecue,” said Sam Nakos of Demetri’s BBQ in Homewood, “Up North, they have white sauce, and we don’t have white sauce in Birmingham. They slop a bunch of mayonnaise on a pork sandwich. In Birmingham, we have a tomato-based red sauce.” He adds, “White sauce does not belong in Birmingham.”

                Despite these disagreements, Alabamians tend to agree that their state has the best barbecue and that it demands more recognition around the country and the world. “I really think we could go to Memphis and show those boys how to do it,” Nakos declares. “They have a big national recognition and reputation, but they don’t have anything on Birmingham.”

                “Often, I think Alabama has been overlooked. People shoehorn barbecue into four regions: Kansas City, Carolina, Memphis, and Texas,” explains Lilly. In May 2017, the Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q team won their fifth grand championship at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. They have won more titles than any other team.  By winning these championships, Lilly says, “I think we’ve helped push Alabama barbecue to the forefront.”

                If Alabama barbecue does not have a defining ingredient or flavor profile, it does have a unique story. In Alabama, barbecue transcends race, class, and generational boundaries and relies on a multi-racial and multi-ethnic restaurant-based scene emphasizing open-pits and hickory wood. The state’s defining meat and sauce, however, remain up for debate.

                From the beginning, Alabama barbecue did not necessarily have these characteristics. Instead, they developed over time. Alabama barbecue has its roots in the original contact between Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans. For 400 years, Alabama barbecue has evolved to its present-form. It has been shaped by restaurateurs but also major historical forces, such as slavery and emancipation, migration and immigration, segregation and civil rights, and the rise of the middle class and the restaurant industry.