Coke vs. Pepsi bubbles on. Papa John's, Pizza Hut and Domino's still fling sauce whenever they can. And there is no truce in sight in the burger wars.
But when it comes to real food feuds, nothing touches the heated — or rather, slow-cooked — debate over barbecue sauce. Simmering across regions and generations, this squabble is like vinegar and, er, ketchup.
"You can carry that metaphor a little too far because it's not as important as religion, but there are these sects and cults," says John Shelton Reed, co-author of "Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue" with his wife, Dale.
The core of the barbecue sauce debate is simple: vinegar-based vs. tomato-based.
It's strictly a Southern squabble, the battle line starting with the vinegar crowd in eastern North Carolina. As you move west, tomatoes take over. And the closer you get to Texas, the sweeter and darker red the sauces get.
But for non-Southerners, it's hard to understand the fuss over a sticky substance spread over a chunk of meat.
It has to do with roots.
With origins in colonial times, American barbecue became ingrained in Southern culture in the wake of the Civil War as black pitmasters honed a craft learned during the days of slavery. They became experts at cooking pigs, tweaking the standard vinegar and tomato-based varieties to create region-defining styles.
Uniquely Southern as moonshine, barbecue has become a badge of identity, your sauce preference saying as much about where you're from as your palette.
"The basis of barbecue is smoke from wood fire, and that seems almost elemental, that it's God-given," says Southern food historian John T. Edge. "It's the trademark sauce, or lack of sauce, that a pitmaster adds that becomes their stamp, their place, their tradition, their family. That lends itself to provincial arguments."
The smack talk over which is better started almost the day German settlers had the audacity to add tomatoes to their sauce, each side acting as if eating the wrong kind is an affront to morality.
So much so that when a group of fourth-graders tried a few years ago to get legislators to pass a bill making the Lexington Barbecue Festival North Carolina's official barbecue festival, folks in the eastern part of the state created a huge stink. It was later changed to the official "food" festival of North Carolina.
"There's an awful lot of abuse back and forth across the eastern North Carolina-Piedmont line, but I think people enjoy it," says Shelton Reed, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of North Carolina and barbecue judge.
"Nobody's going to pull out a gun and start shooting. People do enjoy it, just the way they enjoy rooting for Duke or Chapel Hill. It's a conflict people get a kick out of."
Before we get too deep into the sauce, let's be clear about something — tossing a couple T-bones on your rinky-dink h
ibachi with the wobbly legs and charcoal brickets isn't barbecue.
The manufacturer may call it a BBQ. Your recipe may even call it that. But that's really grilling. And to suggest otherwise might get you a skewer in the eye from true barbecue aficionados.
Unlike the torch-and-flip of grilling, barbecue is a more laborious process: cooking at low temperatures for hours, turning the meat into a succulent, fall-off-the-bone mouthful of tastiness.
Not surprisingly, the concept goes back centuries.
Homer — the poet, not the cartoon character — refers to a form of barbecue in his epic works, and the term generally is believed to be a derivative of "barbacoa," a West Indian word used to describe slow-cooking meat over hot coals.
Since then, barbecue has morphed into an art form. And the culinary epicenter of this art is in the South, where they've been barbecuing since settlers first wandered into Virginia — and debating sauce styles for nearly as long.
Proponents of the vinegar-based variety claim theirs is the way barbecue was intended, a 200-year-old original not all that different from what Thomas Jefferson ate. A little cider vinegar, some red pepper and a dash of salt is all you need.
"We have an old theory that you don't put vinegar on beef, and you don't put ketchup on pork," says Wilber Shirley, owner of Wilber's Barbecue, a vinegar-style joint in Goldsboro, N.C., where the specialty is barbecued pork. "If you get a steak, you put steak sauce or tomato ketchup and this kind of thing. Pork, there's always been a theory that you're not supposed to do that."
This vinegar idolatry, though, doesn't translate very far outside eastern North Carolina.
Starting around the Piedmont region of central North Carolina, barbecue sauce is made with ketchup or tomato paste to add tanginess and color.
The split runs roughly along a line through the Raleigh-Durham area — vinegar-based to the east, tomato-based "Piedmont"- or "Lexington"-style to the west.
Other than a band of mustard-based sauce around central South Carolina and northern Georgia, the sauces generally get sweeter the farther west you go, with places like Memphis and Texas adding molasses or brown sugar to give it a little twang.
Fans of the tomato-based style don't understand how someone could ruin a piece of me
at with vinegar, believing a little ketchup makes the barbecue sweeter, prettier and taste better. Save the vinegar for cleaning, they say.
"Everybody has an opinion on what barbecue is supposed to taste like," says Ollie Gates, owner of Gates Barbecue, a tomato-based place in Kansas City, Mo. "It tastes like what you originally tried in the beginning when somebody told you that was barbecue, so you compare everything to that taste."
CAROLINA-STYLE PULLED PORK BUTT
Barbecue purists in eastern North Carolina claim there's only one way to cook pork: with vinegar. The concept dates to the days of Thomas Jefferson and generally requires little more than cider vinegar, red pepper and maybe some salt.
This recipe uses the pork butt — also called the Boston butt — and contains part of the shoulder blade. Rick Browne, author of "The Best Barbecue on Earth," says this cut is ideal for smoking, as the bone transfers heat to the center and adds flavor.
To prepare this recipe, you will also need about 1 cup wood chips for smoking (available alongside grilling supplies) and heavy-duty foil. Charcoal or gas grills can be used; total grilling time is about six hours.
Start to finish: six hours of grilling, plus overnight marinating
Servings: Six to eight
1/2 cup bourbon
2 tablespoons molasses
1-1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 cup water
2 dried chipotle chilies, rehydrated and chopped
4 tablespoons salt, divided
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
5- to 6-pound boneless pork butt (shoulder)
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons cayenne
Hamburger buns, for serving
Cole slaw, for serving
In a large bowl, combine the bourbon, molasses, vinegar, water, chipotles, 2 tablespoons of the salt, red pepper flakes and 1 tablespoon of the black pepper. Stir well, and set aside.
Place the pork shoulder in a large zip-close plastic bag. Pour the marinade over the pork, then seal the bag, pressing out as much air as possible. Refrigerate for six to nine hours.
At least two hours before you are ready to cook the pork, place about 1 cup of wood chips in a bowl, then cover with water and let soak for at least two hours.
Once the pork has marinated, remove it from the bag, and set on a large plate and set aside. Pour the marinade into a medium saucepan, then boil for 12 minutes to use for basting and as a sauce. Set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the remaining salt, paprika, garlic powder, remaining black pepper and cayenne. Stir to mix, then generously sprinkle the spices over all surfaces of the pork. Cover the pork, and refrigerate for one hour.
Remove the pork from the refrigerator, and let it come to room temperature while the grill heats.
Prepare a charcoal or gas barbecue or smoker for indirect cooking, placing a water-filled drip pan under the cool side of the grill rack. Heat to 250 degrees. Make sure the grill rack is clean, and oil it thoroughly with cooking spray.
Place the soaked wood chips on a piece of heavy-duty foil, then fold it over like an envelope to enclose the wood. Using a pencil, poke 3 or 4 holes in the top of the foil envelope (don't poke all the way through).
Place the foil packet directly on the coals or gas flames. When the wood inside the packet starts to smoke, transfer the pork butt to the prepared grill rack over indirect heat.
Lower the lid rack, and cook until the internal temperature reaches 190 to 200 degrees, about five to six hours. During the final two hours of cooking, baste the pork with some of the reserved sauce every 30 minutes.
Remove the pork from the grill, and use two large forks to shred and pull apart the meat. Transfer the meat to a large bowl, then stir in 3 to 4 tablespoons of the sauce (or up to 1/2 cup). Serve on hamburger buns with cole slaw on top or on the side.
(Recipe from Rick Browne's "The Best Barbecue on Earth," Ten Speed Press, 2008)
EASY MEMPHIS-STYLE BARBECUED PORK SPARERIBS
The flavor of vinegar was a little too strong for German settlers in the early days of the Carolinas, so they decided to add tomatoes to sweeten up their barbecue sauces.
Now, tomato-based sauce has become the way to go for barbecue enthusiasts across most of the South, with the addition of molasses or brown sugar making the taste sweeter the farther west you move.
This is a speedy version of traditional slow-barbecued ribs. Most of the cooking is done hands-off in the oven, with a final quick stint on the grill to form a nice crust.
Start to finish: Four hours (one hour active)
Servings: Four to six
For the barbecue rub:
1/3 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons cumin
2 tablespoons ground coriander
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon ginger
2 racks pork spareribs, about 3 pounds each
For the sauce:
1 cup ketchup
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons brown mustard
1/2 teaspoon Liquid Smoke (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat the oven to 200 degrees.
To prepare the rub, in a small bowl, combine the salt, pepper, brown sugar, paprika, chili powder, cumin, coriander, cayenne and ginger. Use the rub to thoroughly coat the ribs.
Arrange the ribs on baking sheets, and roast until the meat is tender and pulls easily from the bone, about three hours. Remove the ribs from the oven, and set aside.
While the ribs cook, prepare the sauce. In a small bowl, combine the ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, orange juice, mustard and Liquid Smoke. Set aside.
When the ribs are nearly done, preheat a grill to low with the grate at the highest setting. Grill the ribs for 10 to 20 minutes per side, or until a light crust has formed. Brush the ribs with the sauce during the final minute of cooking.
To serve, cut the racks into individual ribs, passing the remaining sauce on the side.
(Recipe from Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby's "Grill It!," DK Publishing, 2008)