Look, barbecue is great. It's a symbol of America. It's steeped in tradition and shrouded in mystery and ultimately one of the most enjoyable things on God's green earth to eat.
But to focus squarely on barbecue, as in barbecued meat, is to overlook a major part of the overall barbecue experience: side dishes.
Yes, side dishes. These accompaniments don't get the attention they deserve, but they're responsible for both creating balance in your meal and reinforcing regional boundaries in the hyper-provincial barbecue world. In short, sides are the unsung heroes of barbecue.
A hulking pile of meat alone is boring. A plastic sporkful of bright, acidic slaw here, a bite of tender cornbread there, and we're revived, ready to power through the onslaught of slow-cooked pork or beef before us.
In the Carolinas, chopped whole hog is served with a light, mayo-based slaw in the East or a ketchup-laced version in the West. Lowcountry hash is a sort of pig scrap-and-vegetable stew; in Kentucky, they call a similar thing "burgoo." Navy beans are baked in thick, tangy sauce in Kansas City, KS; "cowboy" (pinto) beans are simmered in a peppery broth in Texas. Carbs arrive in the form of corn (bread or hushpuppies in the Carolinas) or potatoes (German-style potato salad in Texas). Memphis has its own repertoire of peculiar sides, including a better-than-it-sounds barbecue spaghetti.
And this is the most passing of glances; there's an entire galaxy of regional side dishes. If you could read them like tea leaves, each one would tell a different story about where it comes from, who made it and why it belongs there. Smoking meat is an art, but side dishes come from the heart.
Should you find yourself on a barbecue odyssey, save room for something other than the main course at these pit stops:
Bar-B-Q Shop, Memphis, TN: Do not fear the barbecued spaghetti ($4): pasta topped with slow-cooked pulled pork in a tangy, tomato-y gravy. It tastes better than it sounds (and looks), promise.
Louie Mueller Barbecue, Taylor, TX: Get a Texas side dish twofer with the German-style potato salad ($1.50), made with mustard and dill relish, and soupy stewed pinto beans ($1.50) at this brisket institution.
Shealy's BBQ, Batesburg-Leesville, SC: Deep in the South Carolina Mustard Belt, this all-you-can-eat BBQ buffet ($11) has deep vats of hash, green beans, creamed corn and the noblest "side dish" of them all: fried chicken.
Oklahoma Joe's, Kansas City, MO: The so-called "best beans on the planet" ($2.50) at this legendary joint are actually a blend of pork and black and kidney beans simmered in barbecue sauce with brown sugar and chopped brisket.
Fette Sau, Brooklyn, NY: This Brooklyn spot offers a wide-ranging array of sides in step with its pan-regional meat offerings. Try the burnt end-laced baked beans ($5.25), mustardy potato salad ($3.25) and crisp pickles ($1.50). Bonus: Every platter is served with fluffy cafeteria-style potato rolls, too.
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