By Hope S. Philbrick
Folks throughout Georgia may not be able to agree on how to spell it, but one thing is for certain:
Georgians love slow-roasted meat slathered with tangy sauce.
Don’t take that to mean there’s some statewide universal recipe: There are as many different styles and interpretations of barbecue throughout Georgia as there are spellings of it. “Barbecue has got to be the most regional food in the world,” says Larry Sconyers, president of Sconyers Bar-B-Que in Augusta. “Every 50 miles it changes. In the Augusta area alone you can find different types of barbecue sauce: vinegar-based, tomato-based, mustard-based and sauces that are kind of a blended mixture of these in one way or another.”
What most barbecue shares in common is a smoke-infusing wood-burning cooking method. “The cooking process defines barbecue,” says Wiley McCrary, proprietor of Wiley’s Championship BBQ in Savannah. “You cook on indirect heat and you cook it long—a period of 10 to 14 hours. It’s the sauce and the wood that you cook with that generally denote the region.”
“Most Georgia barbecue uses oak and hickory wood,” says Sconyers, who uses this combination at his own restaurant. “When I was a little boy on our farm we used to use blackjack oak, which is very hard. We’d put hot coals and ashes right under the meat.”
“At our restaurant, we cook with pecan wood and a slight touch of hickory,” says McCrary. “In the center of the state they often use peach wood—because we have a lot of peach trees in Georgia! In Texas they commonly use mesquite wood. The wood has a definite influence on how the meat is going to turn out.”
The emphasis on pork is another thing that distinguishes Georgia barbecue from that found in other states. Though chicken, turkey and beef can be found on barbecue menus throughout the state, pork reigns as most popular—whether it’s pulled, chopped or sliced, served on its own or atop a bun.
Georgian’s love affair with barbecue has endured for generations: For example, Sprayberry’s Barbecue in Newnan has been family-owned and operated since 1926. Old Clinton Bar-B-Q in Gray and Milledgeville opened in 1958. Fincher’s Bar-B-Q in Macon was established in 1935. What’s more, barbecue fans can be devout: While he was in office, President Jimmy Carter had his favorite dishes from Sconyers (which opened in 1956) shipped to the White House.
“Years ago barbecue was a social function,” says Sconyers, whose father was a farmer with a passion for cooking that led to the restaurant business. “My dad’s attorney, banker and doctor friends came out to the farm on the weekend for a big barbecue. It was social—and that’s why our restaurant is only open three days a week on the weekend.”
Three things differentiate good barbecue from the not so good: Appearance, taste and tenderness. Barbecue should look good enough to eat and taste good. Achieving just the right bite can be the trickiest part of the equation. Contrary to what some might think, ‘tender’ doesn’t mean the meat falls off the bone. “Absolutely not!” says McCrary at the mere suggestion of such horrors. “A rib should still have a little tug and firmness when you bite into it. If the meat is falling off the bone, it’s overcooked and would be marked down in competition cooking.”
The key is to cook the meat “low and slow,” says Sconyers. That means “a low temperature for a long period of time. We think meat tastes much better if you do it that way. Unfortunately, these days everyone wants quick and you just can’t do quick with barbecue. Think of it as ‘good food fast’: We get it to the table fast, but what we serve on Thursday we started cooking on Wednesday morning. It takes that long.” It’s also a labor of love: “Years ago we had to turn the meat every hour and then when it reached a certain point every two hours,” he says. “Through a series of trial and error over thirty years, I devised something to make it easier.” His patented technique uses a brick pit and cantilevered half circle lid that allows the meat to cook in such a way that it never requires turning.
To add signature tang to barbecue meat, sauce is used as a marinade, basting liquid and/or condiment. While different styles of barbecue sauce can be found in Georgia, tomato-based sauce is most common. “We use tomato-based sauce in our restaurant, which is very popular—in fact, we bought a mustard-based sauce when we first opened and still have three-quarters of the gallon,” says McCrary. “Folks like vinegar-based sauce if they’re from North Carolina and we have it on hand in case we get some North Carolinians. In parts of South Carolina it’s mustard-based sauce. In Texas it’s sweet red sauce. But if you look at what’s on grocery store shelves in Georgia you’ll find that probably 90 percent of the products are tomato-based.”
What’s most popular served alongside barbecue varies by region as well: For example, hash dominates menus in Augusta, while in Savannah it’s Brunswick stew. Typical sides include onion rings (showcasing Georgia’s own Vidalia onions, of course!), hot boiled or roasted peanuts, fried green tomatoes, fried pickles, onion rings, coleslaw, baked beans, potato salad, French fries (utilizing sweet potatoes, if you’re lucky), green beans, fried okra, sweet corn (often served on the cob), Texas toast, fried mushroom and macaroni and cheese.
Barbecue restaurants are typically relaxed places where the focus is on enjoying food. “Barbecue is just a passion of ours,” says Sconyers. “Dad’s passion was cooking barbecue and I learned from him; he instilled that passion in me. It’s not a job; it’s fun. We enjoy what we do.”
Based on the number of barbecue restaurants in the state—several hundred are located in the Atlanta metro area alone—Georgians enjoy eating it, too.
Even folks who own celebrated barbecue restaurants sometimes wonder where to eat barbecue while traveling. “What I try to do is find out which ones the locals like,” says Sconyers. “Also, though it’s just my personal preference, I try to find a local establishment that’s not a chain.”
Ask ten Georgians to name their favorite barbecue restaurant and, odds are, you’ll get ten different answers. (Very passionate answers, in most cases.) Two of my favorites are listed below. Finding your own personal favorite is sure to be a lip-smacking fun investigation.
Many barbecue restaurants have limited hours of operation. Before visiting a specific restaurant, call to confirm the days of week and times that it is open.
2250 Sconyers Way
Wiley’s Championship BBQ
4700 Hwy. 80 East, Suite N
-Photos by Hope S. Philbrick at Wiley’s Championship BBQ © HSP Media LLC