Barbecue: Old Dominion Style

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You can be forgiven for being unfamiliar with, even skeptical of, the term “Virginia barbecue.” When most people think barbecue epicenters, they probably think North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Kansas City—but not necessarily the Old Dominion.

Well, as it happens Virginia not only lays claim to several awesome regional barbecue styles, we may well be the birthplace of Southern barbecue, according to some barbecue experts (yes, they exist). And while you’ve long been able to enjoy fantastic American barbecue in the state of multiple styles, homegrown Virginian preparations are enjoying a smokin’-hot, finger-lickin’-good revival well worth celebrating.

Virginia in American Barbecue History

Virginia-style barbecue has been more in the spotlight the past few years partly thanks to the efforts of one of the primary authorities on the subject, Joe Haynes, who published Virginia Barbecue: A History, in 2016. Haynes contends that Southern barbecue got its start in Virginia, when English colonists and African-American slaves added their own seasonings to an indigenous Powhatan method of slow-cooking meat on wooden platforms—“hurdles,” as the colonists sometimes called them—positioned over coals.

Over time, Haynes argues, Virginia-style barbecue spread to other corners of the South and seeded the development of their own regional variations.

George Washington: The Original Pitmaster?

Besides the cooking platform and the method of grilling, the word “barbecue” in Virginia also came to mean a social event centered on barbecuing, a use we, of course, still drop today. And as it happens, a number of Virginia-born Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, were fond of hosting (and attending) barbecues.

So there you go: Were you, say, to indulge in a little Bill & Ted-style time travel and find yourself at Mount Vernon, Monticello, or Montpelier, you could invite George, Thomas, or James to a barbecue, and they’d not only know what you were talking about but would probably eagerly accept. (And hopefully, ask what side dish they could bring.)

Virginia Barbecue Styles & Sauces

Pork has always been at the center of Virginia-style barbecue and, indeed, Southern barbecue in general, but beef is also traditionally used. (As Haynes notes in a blogpost, George Washington’s BBQ for a Capitol cornerstone-laying festival featured a 500-pound ox.) In the Shenandoah Valley, meanwhile, barbecue most famously means chicken.

The chief regional distinctions within Virginia barbecue, though, come in the sauce department. In the Tidewater region, barbecue sauces are traditionally a combo of vinegar and tomato with a bit of mustard. (“Virginians have used mustard in their barbecue sauces for hundreds of years,” this Washington Post article points out. “Unlike South Carolinians, however, Virginians never used mustard as the base for barbecue sauce but prefer to use it as a flavoring.”)

In Central Virginia, meantime, the go-to barbecue sauces tend to combine vinegar with plenty of spices such as ginger and cloves, and often feature Worcestershire.

The Northern Virginia-style barbecue sauce is the sweetest of the bunch, a tomato-based version sometimes called “mahogany sauce” that often incorporates fruit.

Vinegar and herbs help define the barbecue sauce of the Shenandoah Valley, including that flavoring the celebrated, spatchcocked awesomeness known as Shenandoah-style barbecue chicken.

Barbecue Safaris in Virginia

Whether you’re specifically tracking down traditional Virginia-style barbecue at joints such as Shaffer’s BBQ in Middletown (a great choice for the Shenandoah Valley sauce) or King’s Famous Barbecue in Petersburg (Tidewater style), or exploring barbecue traditions from elsewhere in the South being celebrated by pitmasters and chefs here, Virginia offers no shortage of world-class BBQ. Get started with this extensive list of some of the best barbecue in the state, and get ready to roll up those sleeves and dig in!

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