Except for the hamburger, what's more American a food than barbecue? Its permutations are virtually endless: the vinegary North Carolina pulled-pork variety, the smoky brisket of Texas, the succulent ribs of Memphis. Almost anywhere you go in the American South, someone's bound to offer you barbecue.
So go already.
Take a virtual drive--and, eventually, a real drive--around the region's delicious back roads with the Internet as your guide. Though the Net won't actually serve you barbecue through your computer (one can dream), the small towns you'll discover and the wonderful little businesses you'll encounter make the keyboard-and-mouse trip worthwhile.
A good place to start is The Smoke Ring, http://www.smokering.net, which offers links to myriad barbecue-related sites around the United States--more than 200 of them.
The Internet Barbecue Review, at http://www.hsv.tis.net/~alvitar/barbeque, offers a virtual road trip to some of the best barbecue in the South. Here you'll find directions to such places as Fat Matt's Rib Shack in Atlanta, where live music and succulent ribs make for an interesting evening; and Johnny's Barbecue in Cullman, Ala., where sauce is sold by the gallon. One reviewer calls it "the Mecca, the porcine pinnacle of barbecue."
And consider some of these regional gems:
* The Woodlands Barbecue & Pickin' Parlor, http://www.woodlandsbbq.com, voted business of the year in Blowing Rock, N.C., two years running.
* Lockhart, Texas, http://www.lockhart-tx.org/bbq.html, "the barbecue capital of Texas," has drawn praise from as far as London. It features such hometown gems as Kreuz Market, where the barbecue is served on brown butcher paper; Black's Barbecue, owned by the same family since 1932; and Chisholm Trail Bar-B.Q., opened by a guy who sold his fishing boat to fund the operation.
* BJ's Barbecue, http://www.nvbbq.com, way out in the yonder of Sparks, Nev., which has turned to marketing its products not only on-site but online.
The Kansas City Bar B Q Connection, http://www.rbjb.com/rbjb/bbq.htm, billed as the first major barbecue site on the Web, dedicates itself to the succulent smoked cuisine of one of barbecue's best cities. It includes a who's who of Kansas City barbecue, a barbecue chat room and a tour of the region's barbecue joints, from Ricky's Pit Bar-B-Que http://www.rbjb.com/rbjb/rickys.htm, to Jack Fiorella's Smokestack of Martin City, http://www.rbjb.com/rbjb/smokes.htm.
Similarly, Okie-Q, http://www.okie-q.com/index2.html, guides you around the varied smoked meats of Oklahoma with a full page for every place it covers, from Slick's to Elmer's to Cotton Joe's.
BBQSearch.com, http://www.bbqsearch.com, presents the idea of barbecue as a smattering of potential road trips. It's equipped with links to maps and flight and trip-planning information for people who want to take an excursion to smoked-meat outlets or festivals. It even offers a barbecue search engine.
Some road trips might be to unlikely places--unlikely for barbecue, at least. The Greater Omaha Barbecue Society, http://www.novia.net/~cedmunds/gobs, wants you to travel to the State Barbecue Championship of Nebraska and taste 72 different kinds of slow-cooked meat from "some of the best barbecuers from all over the Midwest."
People are serious about their barbecue, and there's a reason: It's not merely a food; it's an expression of American regionalism in an age of mass production. It's as much an expression of its hometown as it is of its recipe. So hop onto the back roads, visit some small towns and taste America.