In the U.S., barbecue is generally associated with states that sit farther south. Much like distinctive regional music, fashion, and colloquialisms spoken in Southern accents, barbecue is a method of communication, letting locals tell visitors and new neighbors what’s possible around here, and how folks like it done.
However, if the South is so good at low-and-slow meat cooking, shouldn’t a state as southern as Georgia have a recognizable style of barbecue to call its own and parameters to define it?
It appears most people agree that Georgia barbecue exists. But like an old, trusty sauce mop, the answer is a little messy — and like other regional barbecue traditions, Georgia’s style varies depending on the person describing it. Perhaps Georgia barbecue is most identifiable by the heart, soul, and history blended into its preparation. These modifiers may be less immediately distinctive than twangy vinegars or a thickened tomato base, but the importance of these ingredients in recognizing the flavors of Georgia’s barbecue runs no less deep.
“I think there is a claim to what Georgia barbecue is,” says Texas native Jonathan Fox. Fox and his twin brother, Justin, own Atlanta’s popular barbecue restaurant Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q in the city’s Candler Park neighborhood. But to find what could be considered true Georgia barbecue, Fox says, people need to venture outside of Atlanta.
“Atlanta’s a tough city. It’s a transplant city. The further you get out of the city, you see more of what I would call ‘Georgia barbecue.’ You kind of lose that true sense of what barbecue is in larger metropolitan areas,” Fox explains. “I don’t think, unfortunately, Georgia would rank up there with your Carolinas, or your Memphis, your Texas.”
Fox’s statement may seem obvious to those who have marked the absence of ingredients most associated with Georgia, like peaches, pecans, or even Vidalia onions, as a statewide barbecue throughline.
Harrison Sapp, co-owner and pitmaster at renowned coastal Georgia restaurant Southern Soul Barbecue on St. Simons Island, agrees with Fox. He believes Georgia barbecue is more about what locals want, rather than strict standards for smoking and sauce-making. But Sapp does think pork is at the top of the Georgia barbecue food pyramid.
For Sapp, who only started cooking brisket 10 years ago, it’s all about pork butts at picnics, since that was his experience with Georgia barbecue growing up.
“My version of it would be a cross between Augusta and Waynesboro [Georgia,] what we have around here,” says Sapp. “I grew up here, and my dad’s from Waynesboro. To be honest with you, the flavors I have [at Southern Soul] were all to make a 7-year-old like it. If the kids like it, the parents will go.”
Judd Foster of South of Heaven BBQ in Carrollton says he discovered the existence of Georgia barbecue through his customers. “You have your staples. We serve brisket, I do pork belly, chopped chicken… a wide variety of things. But my wife Kate and I learned quickly that if someone comes up and says, ‘I want a plate of barbecue,’ they want pulled pork.”
The Fosters catered barbecue together in Atlanta for three years before opening their restaurant in Carrollton, 50 miles west of the city. The rent is more reasonable there, and the small-town vibe gave them space to experiment with their take on barbecue.
A native of upstate New York, Foster learned outdoor cooking as a kid, making maple syrup with his grandfather. Foster says he had his own smoker by the time he was 10 years old. The children, he says, are the future of barbecue. He believes each dish should be as impactful to them as the dishes that remind people of what they ate growing up with family. Kate Foster, who hails from Atlanta, agrees. “We strive to be the place where people say, ‘Oh my God, I remember going to this place when I was younger.’”
However, the Fosters did put a taste of ATL on their barbecue menu, with a little help from Atlanta-based hip-hop duo OutKast. There’s a brisket, chopped pork, and smoked sausage sandwich called Big Boi on the menu, and Foster’s homemade beer cheese is incorporated into the restaurant’s cheesesteak, dubbed Steakonia.
Matt Coggin, managing partner at D.B.A. Barbecue in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood, thinks Georgia barbecue is like a melting pot, but he’s noticed that the sweeter the sauce, the more people eat it up here in Georgia, especially in cooking battles with public tastings around the state.
Raised in Dunwoody, just north of Atlanta, Coggin believes Georgians also tend to have a pretty high threshold for smoke on their barbecue. Through early customer feedback, he learned that when D.B.A. first opened, a decade ago, people thought his barbecue wasn’t smoky enough. Coggin chalks it up to how barbecue is traditionally prepared in smaller smokehouses.
“They’re feeding a smoker all night, so you’re definitely getting a lot of smoke on [the meat]. Southern Pride, Ole Hickory smokers… you put wood on, an hour later you put more wood on, and an hour later, and an hour later, but after that you can go home. You don’t have to keep loading wood all the time.”
For Coggin, the willingness to adapt to his customers and their need for sweeter, smokier flavors in D.B.A.’s barbecue is similar to how Anna Phelps approaches her barbecue. Phelps is from Kirkwood, the east Atlanta neighborhood where her eponymous barbecue restaurant Anna’s BBQ resides. As its owner and pitmaster, Phelps believes there’s a general flavor profile found in Georgia barbecue, particularly in the dry rubs applied to slabs of pork ribs. “We use a simple rub,” she says, referencing not only her restaurant’s recipe but those of other area restaurants. “Garlic salt, seasoning salt, a little sugar, some people use a little cinnamon. It’s a Southern style, with Southern flavor.”
Like Coggin, Phelps thinks smokier meats are Georgia’s calling card. Her father’s side of the family hails from Greensboro — a small town located between Augusta and Atlanta. She feels the increased levels of smoke found in Georgia barbecue are due to the tried-and-true tradition of backyard charcoal cooking. That, she believes, is a connecting point that shows up in barbecue across the state.
“Everywhere I go there’s smoke,” Phelps laughs. “Everybody’s got a little bit of a different taste, but I don’t think it’s that different when you get outside Atlanta.”
Kate Foster feels there’s one other factor to consider when evaluating what makes barbecue recognizable to Georgians: the sides.
She says it’s all about potato salad and coleslaw for patrons of South of Heaven BBQ in Carrollton. But Coggin says those sides don’t sell as well at his restaurant in Atlanta. The star of the sides at D.B.A. is the mac and cheese, which better be close to that of a Southern grandmother’s mac and cheese to pass as acceptable.
Judd Foster thinks Georgia’s love for family meals and Sunday suppers make mac and cheese, cornbread, and collard greens mandatory add-ons for barbecue menus around the state. He also feels there are dishes that cross state lines, and whose origins become harder to discern. One of his favorite barbecue sides is chicken mull — a cream-based chicken stew often associated with the Carolinas. “You don’t see it that much, but when I see it, I get excited because it’s so good.”
Phelps says mac and cheese, smoked ham-infused collard greens, and baked beans are the biggest sellers at her Kirkwood barbecue restaurant. For patrons of Southern Soul, it’s all about the Hoppin’ John (a savory combination of black-eyed peas, rice, and fatty pork like bacon) due to St. Simon’s sea island locality along the Georgia coast. He reserves his highest praise for collards as a side. “Those are definitely Georgia. You can’t swing a dead cat without seeing ’em.”
For those expecting a mention of a certain super-meaty tomato stew named for the town of Brunswick, there’s wide agreement that it’s a Georgia dish, although it’s now commonly accepted that the stew’s origin story is a bit fuzzy. An inscription found on an old 25-gallon iron pot in Brunswick claims the stew was first made in it on St. Simon’s Island in 1898, 12 miles northeast of the town. A similar claim has been made in Brunswick County, Virginia, where its origins can supposedly be traced back to 1828 and the chef of a state legislator who created the stew for a hunting expedition.
Georgia barbecue could be seen as amalgamation, taking some of the best of what Southern barbecue has to offer and putting it all on one plate. Georgia touches the borders of four states known for barbecue: Tennessee and the baby-back ribs of Memphis slathered in thick, sweet sauces; South Carolina’s tangy mustard blends; the peppery vinegar sauces of North Carolina; and the zesty mayo-based white sauces of Alabama barbecue.
Whether Georgia has its own distinct style of barbecue is still rightly up for debate, but one could loosely characterize it as super-smoky, pork-driven plates paired with homey Southern sides of mac and cheese, cornbread, and smoked ham-infused collards.
Mike Jordan is an Atlanta-based journalist who covers food and beverage for Eater Atlanta, Atlanta magazine, Good Beer Hunting, and Thrillist, where he was the founding Atlanta editor. Jordan is currently the editor-in-chief for online Atlanta culture publication Butter ATL. His work has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone magazine, and Playboy.