No survey of regional barbecue styles would be complete without a word about the other dishes traditionally served alongside slow-smoked and pit-cooked meats. As with the other elements of barbecue, side dishes vary greatly from one part of the country to the next, and menus look very different at a joint in eastern North Carolina than they do down in Austin, Texas.
Admittedly, there are a few staple sides that you can find in almost every American barbecue restaurant, like coleslaw, potato salad, french fries, and beans. But, the recipes for these can vary greatly from one joint to another. Some serve sweet baked beans, for instance, while others offer "barbecue beans" dressed with barbecue sauce, and still others spicy cowboy-style pintos.
And then there are the unique regional specialties that you'll find only in one particular part of the country, which often puzzle first-time outsider the first time they stumble across them. The fiery vinegar- and pepper-laced whole hog barbecue of Eastern North Carolina, for instance, is often accompanied by one of the simplest of sides: boiled potatoes. These are usually just white potatoes that are boiled and served plain, though some joints, like B's Barbecue in Greenville, lace their their boiling water with ketchup, which gives their potatoes a reddish cast and a touch of sweetness.
There's another unique eastern North Carolina specialty known as corn sticks, a sort of a cross between cornbread and hushpuppies. Cornmeal batter is baked in a mold to form skinny sticks that about eight inches long, and they're typically finished in a deep fryer, giving them a crisp outer texture and a dense cornbread center.
As you head west into the Piedmont of North Carolina, the side dishes for barbecue become highly regimented. If you order a "tray," you'll get a big mound of chopped pork shoulder wedged into a cardboard tray alongside a generous portion of slaw (in the Carolinas, it's always just "slaw," not "coleslaw") with a basket of golden brown hushpuppies on the side.
That slaw is different than what you'll find anywhere else in the country, since, like the Piedmont's barbecue sauce, there's a generous dollop of ketchup in the vinegar-based dressing, and it gives a reddish cast to what locals call "red slaw" or "barbecue slaw." In many Piedmont restaurants, you're given a choice between rolls and hushpuppies for your bread, but don't expect a Parker House dinner roll or anything like that. When Piedmonters say a "roll," they mean a plain white hamburger bun, and it's often served warm and wrapped in waxed paper.
In South Carolina, the bread you're served is more likely to come from a loaf of Sunbeam, the soft, gooey, omnipresent brand of sliced white sandwich bread. Often full loaves are laid out in their yellow plastic bags on the buffet or even on each table in the dining room.
But, what really baffles outsiders is the side dish that is universal in the middle part of the Palmetto State: hash and rice. Hash originated in the 19th century as a way to use up the heads, the livers, and all the rest of the pig that couldn't be cooked on a barbecue pit. It was all put in a huge iron pot and boiled for hours over an open wood fire. As it simmered, the cooks would skim out the bones and gristle and other inedible stuff and add onions, potatoes, and spices, then cook them all together into a thick, gravy-like stew.
These days, most restaurants make their hash with inexpensive and inoffensive cuts like pork shoulder and, in some areas, chuck beef, and it's more of a savory, meaty gravy than anything else. In some parts, cooks season their hash with mustard, giving it a distinctive yellow tinge, while in others they use ketchup to create a sort of reddish stew. Invariably, hash is ladled over a bed of plain white rice, which soaks up the juice from the thin stew and adds body and heft. If you look hard enough, you can find a few versions still made the old fashioned whole-hog ingredients, and when you do you'll know it, for the gray color and the rich liver flavor gives its goodies away.
Hash and rice is one of a triumvirate of great barbecue stews. Another, Brunswick stew, can be found all over North Carolina, Georgia, and eastern Tennessee, while up in Kentucky there's a traditional concoction known as burgoo. Like hash, both originated as stews cooked outdoors in huge iron pots.
Brunswick stew takes its name from Brunswick County, Virginia, where it originated in the early 19th century as a simple stew made from squirrel meat long-simmered with bacon and onions. Over time, chicken took the place of squirrel, and vegetables like tomato, onions, corn, lima beans, and potatoes made their way into the pot. These days, most restaurants make their Brunswick stew in a stainless steel pot on a stove. Each version is a little different, but most are akin to a meaty, tomato-based vegetable soup that's been thickened to a stew-like consistency.
Burgoo, Kentucky's signature stew, is quite similar to its cousin from Brunswick. Every cook seems to have a different recipe, but most use multiple meats (including beef, pork, and chicken) along with potatoes, corn, limas, and tomatoes. Mutton makes its way into the pot frequently, which gives some burgoo a bit of a gamey flavor, and other cooks spice theirs up with plenty of cayenne or hot sauce.
You won't find any stews in Central Texas. The barbecue tradition there evolved out of old German meat markets and groceries, where butchers started smoking the less desirable cuts of meat and transforming them into tender, tasty barbecue. These were retail shops, not restaurants, and customers would buy items off the shelf, like crackers, pickles, and onions, to eat along with their take-out meat. These days, dine-in restaurants in Central Texas continue the tradition, serving saltines, sliced onions, and pickle chips alongside their slow-smoked brisket, ribs, and sausage.
Other unique regional sides developed in more recent years, as cooks got creative and incorporated their smoked meats and barbecue sauces into new dishes. In Memphis, there's an odd duck called barbecue spaghetti, which isn't pasta smoked in a pit. Rather, it's pulled pork stirred into a sweet blend of tomato sauce and barbecue sauce and served over spaghetti noodles, and it's now one of the house specialties at places like Corky's and Jim Neely's Interstate Barbecue.
An even odder item can be found in and around Monroe County in the south-central part of Kentucky: barbecue eggs. These are peeled hard-boiled eggs that are pickled in the area's signature pepper-laced vinegar dip. They were invented by David Arms at Frances BBQ outside Tompkinsville, Kentucky, who had five eggs left over after making potato salad and decided to drop them into a batch of his restaurant's famous sauce to see what would happen. He let them marinate a week, and the results were so good that he put them on the menu. Soon other restaurants in the area picked up on the idea and started "barbecuing" their eggs, too.
Unique side dishes like these are all part of the rich, diverse canvas that constitutes American barbecue. Traditionalists are prone to grousing about how the forces of modernity—television, competition barbecue, mass-marketed sauces, restaurant chains—are blurring the old regional styles and creating a homogeneous, watered-down faux version of barbecue. But the more I talk to barbecue cooks all over the country and sample the products of their pits (and the side dishes from their kitchens), the less convinced I am that this is the case.
Yes, you can find shiny new outfits in Raleigh selling Texas-style brisket and diners in Austin demanding sauce for their meat. But these seem more like a little cross-pollination than a relentless melting pot—or, perhaps we should say, hash pot. Variety is alive and well in American barbecue, from the selection of meats and the types of pits on which their cooked to the sauce and accompaniments served alongside. All indicators suggest it's going to remain this way for a many more years to come.