If you find yourself sitting in a cozy little diner somewhere in the South in your travels, don’t be alarmed when you hear voices start to rise in hot debate. Passionate debates are not uncommon here in the South, especially when it comes to those things we hold near and dear to our heart. So what is it that’s being so hotly debated? Politics? Religion? Sports? No, nothing as mundane as that. We’re talking about who’s got the best pulled pork recipes in the South.
Take a drive through the South and you will find any number of restaurants that will hotly debate that they, and they alone, have the original, authentic Southern-style pulled pork sandwich recipe. How can each state, region, and locality claim to have the one, true, original recipe? It’s hard to argue with Southern cooking aficionados, so let’s just take a look at what makes this sandwich unique, as well as debatable.
We have to consider a wide range of regions. Classics like Memphis style, Southern style, North Carolina style, and South Carolina style, are only the beginning. You’ll also hear from folks in Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Florida about what makes their sandwich traditional. It seems most Southern folks claim to have the original, official, and the very best recipes for these sandwiches. What most everyone can agree on is that no one agrees which style of sandwich truly belongs to which region. For as many variations of sauce and seasonings you can find, there are that many and more variations of methods for cooking and serving pulled pork sandwiches.
I won’t attempt to figure out which ingredients for sauces and dry rubs definitely belong to which region. Nor will I try to firmly establish which cooking method belongs to which region. What I will do is lay out a few common methods for cooking and serving this popular sandwich, and suggest where these methods are most typically found. If a method sounds like your hometown original, it probably is; just like it might belong to someone else. In other words, the debate lives on. Let’s look at some of the cooking methods and ingredients that make a pulled pork sandwich what it is:
It’s not easy to pin down a cooking method to any one state or region. Grilling, smoking, roasting, and braising are common in many regions. Deep pits for smoking and slow roasting would have been the preferred method by many settlers in the South, and now their ancestors may still use those exact same methods. Your family’s cooking method depends on how you learned to cook pork. If you’re walking down Beale Street in Memphis, you’ll most likely see lots of smoky grills going, but you’ll see those same scenes in other regions, as well. Any one region would find it difficult to claim that a certain style of cooking is their own and no one else’s. Of course, using a crockpot wasn’t passed down through hundreds of years by our ancestors, so the origin of this method is obviously widespread.
You may use white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, or any of a wide variety of vinegars available. The idea in using vinegar, no matter what kind, is the same. Mixing sour vinegar with some sort of sweet ingredient is essential for any good barbecue sauce. Many recipes claim to be official Memphis style pulled pork specifically because they use vinegar in their sauce. However, several regions and states claim this ingredient as the quintessential ingredient that differentiates their pulled pork sandwich from any other.
Both barbecue sauces and dry rubs may contain brown sugar which gives the sweet flavor to the whole sweet-and-sour balance that a pulled pork sandwich should have. A simple concoction of brown sugar, vinegar, and a pinch of any hot sauce or spicy seasoning is often found in barbecue places in Florida and Alabama. Whether this simple recipe originated in those states is something we’ll never know. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a pulled pork sandwich seasoned like this in Memphis, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist there.
Even though dry rubs have been around forever, and used in all regions of the country, a dry rub used for pulled pork sandwiches contains certain standard ingredients. You’ll basically find cayenne pepper, black pepper, salt, and paprika in a dry rub for pulled pork. Anything added after that is an individual cook’s unique take on this basic recipe. Different regions of the country can lay claim to using only dry rubs, never liquid barbecue sauce, but this method is so widespread that it seems impossible to pin down the original creator. Then, of course, you can use both a dry rub and barbecue sauce together in the same recipe, so it just gets more confusing.
Then there is the question of what to serve with the pulled pork sandwich. Barbecue sauce as a condiment is widely regarded as a standard in every region. Even when the pulled pork never gets a dose of barbecue sauce mixed in with it, there is usually a bottle on the table. You’ll also usually find pepper vinegar, mustard, and even a little Tabasco in most regions. What you’ll hopefully never find is ketchup on the table. That would not go over well in any region. Most folks believe adding coleslaw on top of a pulled pork sandwich is most decidedly a Memphis touch.
As I searched the vast array of pulled pork crockpot recipes on the Internet, in cookbooks, and with my Southern friends, I got more and more confused about which recipe belongs to which region. What I have decided is if your Grandpa and Grandma have been making the same recipe for pulled pork sandwiches since you can remember, then that recipe belongs to your family and to your region. Go ahead and stake your claim and enjoy this great Southern classic.
Can’t decide which style of pulled pork sandwich to try? Why not try a few different ones. Click here for our Memphis Brewed Pulled Pork crockpot recipe, or click here to try our Sweet Carolina Pulled Pork Sandwich recipe.
When you’re ready to find out all the ways your crockpot can save you time and money, check out our informative guide Crockpot Cooking Made Simple. Get started today using your crockpot the way it was meant to be used – often!