Barbecue is like religion. There are many different styles—Texas, North Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis—and people tend to think that their way is the right way, the best way. People argue over which is most delicious, the original, the one true barbecue.
For years, “every time we’d say we do Virginia barbecue at our restaurant, people would laugh at us” as if there were no such thing, says Craig Hartman of Gordonsville’s BBQ Exchange. Virginia is known for its ham and bacon and it’s salting and smoking processes, Hartman says.
Not for much longer. Joe Haynes, a tech consultant and curious lifelong barbecue fan, has spent the past six years uncovering the rich history of Virginia barbecue and giving Virginia barbecue cooks like Hartman fuel for the fight against the naysayers.
In fact, Haynes declares in his heavily-researched book, Virginia Barbecue: A History, what we call Southern barbecue was born in Virginia’s Tidewater region in the 17th century.
It did not begin in the Caribbean, he says (though a 2013 Smithsonian Magazine article claims as much). In the 15th century, Christopher Columbus was the first European to observe and report the Taino Indians’ “barbacoa” cooking technique, but “barbecue didn’t need a European to witness it for it to start,” he says.
“Barbecue—the cooking technique where you take meat, put it over coals and slowly cook it for hours—is ancient,” Haynes says. Nobody really knows where it started, though Haynes suspects it started in Africa, spread to the Middle East and Asia, then the ancestors of Native Americans brought it to the Americas.
Haynes’ research shows that Powhatan Indians threw festivals (pow wows) where they’d cook hunted game (venison, rabbits, squirrels, birds) for hours over beds of coals. When the Virginia settlers arrived, they were dependent on the Powhatan for food. The colonists brought cookbooks that included instructions on how to cook meat on grills using vinegar, salt, pepper and a little butter—the basic components of a Southern barbecue sauce, Haynes says—and showed that basting method to the Indians.
As Virginians migrated they took barbecue to the Carolinas and elsewhere.
Haynes didn’t set out to prove that Southern barbecue as we know it started in Virginia, but that’s where the sources led him. “It’s not like I’m pulling this out of thin air,” he says. Washington Post barbecue and grilling columnist Jim Shahin declared Virginia Barbecue “as deeply researched as any barbecue book I’ve read.”
It’s the sauce and, to some extent, meat choice, that defines a region’s barbecue, and here in Virginia there are four distinct styles. Southside and Tidewater’s tangy tomato- and vinegar-based sauces usually contain a hint of mustard.
The Shenandoah Valley and mountain region’s Virginia-style barbecue chicken is typically smothered in a vinegary sauce seasoned with sweet herbs, garlic, salt and black pepper and, occasionally, celery seed.
Northern Virginia’s tomato-based, herbed sauces sometimes include fruit and tend to be sweeter than other area varieties.
Our own central Virginia and Piedmont regions offer full-bodied, richly spiced tomato sauces, usually with cloves, sassafras and ginger in addition to salt, pepper and vinegar, Haynes says.
Locally, both BBQ Exchange and Brian Ashworth’s Ace Biscuit & Barbecue are doing Virginia barbecue right, in examples such as Ace’s Virginia red and BBQ Exchange’s Hogfire and Colonial bacon sauces.
Ashworth, who didn’t intend to make authentic Virginia barbecue (he just wanted to make good, smoky barbecue, he says), is glad to be a part of the long history that Haynes has brought to light. “If we’re not rebuilding a name for Virginia barbecue, we’re building the name now,” Ashworth says. “It’s cool to be part of that.”
Dying to taste authentic Virginia barbecue for yourself? Here’s what to order.
Ace Biscuit & Barbecue
Virginia red sauce: Brian Ashworth makes his own tomato base for this sauce that Joe Haynes calls “just amazing.” Ashworth says it was inspired by Coca-Cola sauces he’s had further south, and it also includes red onion, root beer, fresh ginger and “choice spices.”
Brisket: is not a traditional Virginia barbecue meat (that’d be pork), but Ashworth cooks brisket—a Texas barbecue staple—Virginia-style, directly on the coals (which Ashworth sources himself from trees on his Barboursville farm).
Hogfire sauce: A classic southside Virginia barbecue sauce, says Haynes.
Colonial bacon sauce: “A whole lot of onions, a whole lot of bacon,” and similar to a sauce Haynes found in a book of colonial Virginia recipes.