"Most folks raised in North Alabama have firmly believed since childhood that barbecue sauce is white," writes pit master Chris Lilly in Big Bob Gibson's BBQ Book, of the legendary barbecue joint. Barbecue chicken with white sauce is the area's regional specialty. The mayonnaise-based sauce is typically thinned with plenty of vinegar and flavored with coarse black pepper. Optional additions can include cayenne pepper, paprika, horseradish, or sugar.
While visiting Birmingham, I drove about an hour north to Decatur to taste the classic dish at its source. Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q is credited with creating the sauce in 1925. Whole chickens are butterflied, dusted with salt, basted with oil, and smoked over hickory wood for about 3 hours. After removing them from the pit, the chickens are immediately submerged in a vat of white sauce. Bits of coarse black pepper from the sauce cling to the glossy skin, and the chickens are separated into quarters or halves and served with more sauce at the table. Typical sides include potato salad, baked beans, and a peculiar coleslaw made from very finely shredded cabbage that is seasoned with a simple dressing of sugar, salt, and white vinegar.
Back in Birmingham, I tried several other barbecue spots under the assumption that white sauce in Alabama would be about as common as white bread on a barbecue plate in my home state of Texas. And yes, barbecue chicken is almost always available in Birmingham BBQ joints. But they don't all participate in the white sauce tradition—many serve their chicken smothered in red barbecue sauce with an aggressive vinegary tang. I did determine, however, that the best chicken and white sauce in Birmingham is made at Miss Myra's Pit Bar B-Q, operated by a family with ancestral ties to Decatur.
I encountered other curious specialties besides white sauce during my adventures in Alabama. I first noticed potatoes topped with barbecue at Big Bob Gibson. I wondered, "Why are people eating this disgusting slop?" Potatoes as big as your head, filled with melted cheese, bacon, scallions, butter and sour cream; huge iceberg salads topped with cheese, tomatoes, bacon bits and croutons—all arrive at the table with your choice of pulled barbecue pork or chicken.
My curiosity got the best of me at Saw's BBQ back in Birmingham, and I ordered one of the potatoes topped with pulled pork. I'll sheepishly admit that I had to hold myself back from eating the whole thing. The tender and crusty barbecue pork, warm melted cheese, crispy bacon bits, and spicy red barbecue sauce created a wonderfully gluttonous harmony. Don't pass one up if you're in the area.
In Alabama, there are only three things you can rely on when it comes to barbecue—pork, chicken, and hickory wood. Sandwiched between two legendary barbecue traditions, you'll sometimes find the sweet sauces of Memphis, or vinegar concoctions from the Carolinas. Brisket and turkey are commonly, but not always, available, and you never know if you'll be served cornbread or yeast rolls. Regardless, reliably excellent barbecue is found throughout Alabama, and the variety and choice is particularly impressive in Birmingham.
We hunted down five spots to find the state's iconic chicken and white sauce. See them all in the slideshow or jump straight to one below!
About the author: Meredith Bethune is a writer who of course likes feeling hip and cool at the latest trendy restaurant, but she feels most comfortable tracking down the best tacos, pizza, and barbecue. She is native Rhode Islander currently living in Austin. Follow her on Twitter (@MeredithBethune).