Barbecue Sandwich with Slaw
Credit: Lauri Patterson/Getty Images

Southerners love to argue about the right way to eat barbecue. Should you slather it with sauce or take it unadorned with nothing more than the smoke of the pit? Do you pile it on a bun to make a sandwich, eat it from a plate with a fork, or just pull it from a bundle of brown butcher paper with your fingers?

I have no delusions of being able to resolve such a long-running debate, but I did recently come across a nice bit of evidence about how Southerners ate their barbecue back in the old days—and I mean way back in the 19th century, when barbecue was cooked outdoors over long pits dug in the ground.

Plenty of accounts describe how barbecue was cooked in those pre-restaurant days. The pits were filled with oak and hickory coals, and the animals were slow-roasted whole. Back then, Carolinians weren't insistent that their barbecue had to be pork, nor were Texans so enamored with beef. Across the South, the animals might be pigs, cows, goats, lambs, turkeys, or whatever else local farmers had on hand and donated to the cause.

What is almost always missing from such historical accounts is a description of how the guests actually ate the barbecue once it came off the pit. Such details, I suppose, were unnecessary to a 19th century Southern reader. You don't see magazine articles today explaining how to eat a cheeseburger, after all.

By the 1890s, though, journalists from New York and other distant places had started making their way South, and they wrote glowingly about the enormous outdoor barbecues they discovered there. One such event took place in 1894 at Stone Mountain, Georgia, where John W. Callaway, the famous barbecuing sheriff of Wilkes County, prepared a "Complimentary Q" for the International League of Press Clubs, whose members were holding their annual convention in Atlanta.

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It was the first time many of the northern reporters had ever encountered barbecue, and they were bowled over by "Brunswick stew fit for the gods" followed by a feast of "lamb, goat, shote, pork and chicken" washed down by "kegs after kegs of beer." Eliza Archard Conner, a columnist for the New York-based American Press Association syndicate, took things a step further and filed a rare outsider's view of a Georgia barbecue, including details on how Georgians preferred to eat it.

"The orthodox way to eat barbecue meat is a sort of sandwich," she wrote. "You take a piece of bread—plain bread. The meat is carried around in great bowls. You hold out a piece of bread. The man who carries the bowl gracefully flicks a chunk of meat upon the bread."

Conner makes no mention of barbecue sauce. That was a 20th century innovation. Instead, her sandwich was finished with a rather unusual condiment.

"Another attendant," she explained, "is usually near with what is called ‘Brunswick stew.' . . . It appears to be composed of green corn, tomatoes, and red peppers, but I don't know. I do know that it is very good. A spoonful of Brunswick stew is ladled out upon the chunk of meat; then another slice of bread, a good thick slice—none of your fashionable afternoon tea kind—is laid upon the whole. You give them a little squeeze to keep them together and begin to bite."

Conner was quite impressed with the results. "The Georgia roast pig was tenderer, juicier than any incubator chicken New York people pay 50 cents a bite for broiled," she wrote. "Alongside that incomparable barbecue roast pig a New York broiled chicken is as frazzled india rubber."

We've been impressing visiting New Yorkers with our barbecue ever since. The next time I'm down at Southern Soul on St. Simons Island or Old Hickory Pit in Atlanta, I'm going to have them hold the sauce and spoon a little Brunswick stew on my sandwich instead. That sounds downright delicious.