Delta Vs. Southwest Vs. Ozark BBQ

Delta Vs. Southwest Vs. Ozark BBQ
File Photo Brisket, pulled pork, ribs, sausage, cole slaw, baked beans and potato salad fill a plate at Ralph’s Pink Flamingo BBQ in Fort Smith.

File Photo
Brisket, pulled pork, ribs, sausage, cole slaw, baked beans and potato salad fill a plate at Ralph’s Pink Flamingo BBQ in Fort Smith.

Betwixt Memphis and Texarkana, Kansas City and parts beyond, Arkansas stands at a crossroads of magnificent barbecue styles. Here, within our different geographical and geological regions, a blend of thick and thin sauces, meats and preparations, the varieties blend like hickory and oak as their smoke fills the pit.

Arkansas once had its own portion of barbecue on the plate with the use of goat at heritage restaurants such as McClard’s Barbecue in Hot Springs and Craig Brothers in DeValls Bluff. But its barbecue heritage goes back even further. Public events where ditch smoking took place — the act of lining a freshly dug ditch with hot wood and rocks, placing meat to be smoked upon them and then burying the meat under more smoldering wood — were recorded in journals and newspapers of the early 19th century. Such a mention comes from Helena as far back as 1814, where a community gathering was advertised with the call for farmers to bring their pigs, turkeys, ducks, chickens and all to be smoked and shared.

With the homogenization of cuisine that spread through the state after World War II via the automobile and the availability of television, many of our barbecue traditions have disappeared — including smoked goat. What remains is our favorite barbecue condiment, coleslaw, which we slather on our pigmeat sandwiches and buns of beef equally.

While regional delicacies can be cited, Arkansas’s barbecue falls into three categories: Delta, Southwest, and Ozark.

Delta BBQ

The vast Mississippi River Alluvial Plain, once clear cut up to both sides of Crowley’s Ridge, has long been the land of cotton. Rice has become dominant over time, as have crops of wheat, corn and sorghum. Sharecropping and crop farming have long called for as much of the land to be used for crops as possible, leaving little space for the grazing of cattle. Here, barbecue was a matter of avian game, smaller wildlife and pigs. Smoking tends to be pit-style, similar to the ditch smoking of before but in concrete or brick bunkers.

The epitome of this style could easily be shown at the James Beard Award-winning Jones Barbecue Diner in Marianna, where Harold Jones has been smoking pork butts since 1964. The same smoky pork and its secret thin vinegar sauce have been made by members of the family since the Civil War. The meat is served one of three ways — on white bread with slaw, on white bread without slaw, and piled up into an aluminum-foil wrapped heap sold by the pound.

Similarly, the pigmeat sandwiches with their thin hot sauces of the Blytheville area fall into this category, whether with the finely chopped pork on a bun with a hot sauce at Kream Kastle or the granddaddy Dixie Pig (around since 1923) with its fiery pepper sauce served in ketchup bottles to douse your pile of hickory smoked meat.

Southwest BBQ

In reality, this type of barbecue spans two of Arkansas’s regions, the Ouachitas and what natives tend to call Lower Arkansas, a spread which rolls south from the Arkansas River Valley on the western side of the state, over Interstate 30 and on a Doppler-style sweep straight over to Bayou Bartholomew. It includes such vastly different places as Mena, Magnolia and Malvern. It is here that the Texas influence has been allowed to gnaw its way in.

Here, the barbecue is usually smoked in the pit directly over hardwoods such as hickory, oak and pecan (unlike Texas-style mesquite), with beef and chicken taking their places alongside pork ribs and butts. The sauce is thicker and sweeter. A prime example would be Stubby’s Hik’ry Pit Bar-B-Q in Hot Springs, which offers that variety of meats as well as a bean pot — a pot of beans that sits at the bottom of the pit catching juices falling off the meat while smoking.

Ozark BBQ

Thanks to the ridges and valleys of the Ozark plateau, this region remained mostly isolated until the second half of the 20th century. A culture of smokehouse cuisine developed, where hams, sausages and whole turkeys were salted and hung for days to cure in pecan and fruitwood enhanced smoke. Acclaimed purveyors of smoked meats (including the once dominant Ozark Mountain Smokehouse and its satellite locations) offered these succulent samples of savory morsels to tourists and diners alike.

While such smoked meats are still being prepared in the same fashion at the renowned Coursey’s Smoked Meats in St. Joe, it’s the purveyors of barbecue that have truly benefited from these flavors. Smoke plus thicker sauce (more reminiscent of Kansas City-style brown sugar sauces) tend to be more prevalent, as is evidenced in such places as Blacksheep Joe’s in Yellville.

There are other influences out there throughout the region, from Ralph’s Pink Flamingo in Fort Smith with its smoked sausage links; Rivertowne BBQ in Ozark with butter-soft smoked brisket; and the pit-smoked pork ribs and sandwiches at Bubba’s in Eureka Springs — but overall, smoke rules in the Ozarks.

— Kat Robinson


Arkansas BBQ Championship

People’s Choice Contest

WHEN — 6 p.m. Friday

WHERE — Washington County Fairgrounds in Fayetteville

COST — $10


Categories: Legacy Archive