How Pulled Pork Took Over the South

I have been known to say unkind things about Texas-style smoked brisket likening it to kudzu in its seemingly unstoppable spread across the South. But now another invasive barbecue species is threatening to overrun native regional varieties, and it's not a form of beef. It's pulled pork.

Earlier this month, Martin Cizmar asked in Kansas City Magazine, "Will classic KC pit ham disappear amidst the rise of pulled pork?" For decades, he explains, the two most common forms of pork at the city's famed barbecue joints were ribs and ham, the latter being cured city ham given an extra dose of smoke on the barbecue pit.

Pulled Pork BBQ Sandwich from Jim 'N Nicks Bar-B-Q restaurant
Laurey W. Glenn

Starting in the early 2000s, though, pulled pork made from Boston butts started popping up on local menus, and it's now eclipsing ham. Marisha Brown-Smith, the owner of Rosedale Bar-B-Q, told Cizmar that they held off as long as they could but finally introduced pulled pork about seven years ago. Joe's Kansas City reports that their ham sales, which were never huge to begin with, have fallen off in recent years, and owner Todd Michael Johns recently dropped it from the menu at Ploughboys.

To me, this is a worrisome development. A sliced beef and ham combo sandwich is a Kansas City treasure, and I can't fathom visiting Gates Bar-B-Q and not ordering a "mixed plate" with ribs, beef, ham and a mound of fries. I'm not about to travel all the way to Kansas City just to eat pulled pork.

Gates Bar-B-Q Plate
A Mixed Plate with ribs, beef, and ham (and no pulled pork) at Gates Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, MO. Robert Moss

Some might think this an odd thing for a native Carolinian like myself to say, since barbecue commentators routinely assert that "pulled pork" is the dominant form of barbecue in North and South Carolina. A recent Texas Monthly article about barbecue in Los Angeles, for instance opens with a reference to "the mountains of pulled pork of the Carolinas."

I would love to know where to find even a small hillock of pulled pork in the Carolinas, for "pulled" is not a common option, at least not in the old school joints. In the Piedmont of North Carolina, you can order barbecue chopped, sliced, or "coarse chopped," meaning cut into inch-thick chunks. Coarse chopped becomes rare as you head eastward, and once you get out to places like Skylight Inn in Ayden and B's in Greenville, they invariably chop the pork to tiny shreds with cleavers.

There is always an exception that proves the rule, and in South Carolina it's the whole hog region known as the Pee Dee. At McCabe's in Manning and Scott's in Hemingway they emphatically do pull the meat, drawing it straight off the hog into long, succulent strands. But no one calls it "pulled pork." They just call it "barbecue."

Scott's Pulled Pork BBQ in Hemingway, SC
At Scott’s in Hemingway, they pull the whole hog into long strands, but it’s just called ‘barbecue’. Robert Moss

Elsewhere in South Carolina, not even whole hogs are pulled. At Hite's in West Columbia, the barbecue is chopped, and at Sweatman's in Holly Hill it's cut into small pieces with knives. Slow-smoking Boston butts then pulling them with tongs, forks, or fingers—it's just not done around here.

Or, at least, not until recently. If you see something called "pulled pork" on a Carolina menu, it's almost certain that the restaurant opened in the 21st century. And that got me wondering how "pulled pork" became all the rage in the South in the first place.

As best as I can tell, the term "pulled pork" was first used in West Tennessee to describe the local style of serving barbecue. In 1973, the Jackson Sun of Jackson, Tennessee, depicted a family reunion barbecue near Mercer that featured "a giant bowl of pulled barbecued pork." Around the same time the Liberty Supermarket in Jackson started advertising "Fresh lean pulled pork barbecue" for $1.49 a pound.

Pulling pork seems to have been a thing in Memphis, too. In a New Yorker profile of the city's barbecue scene, Calvin Trillin noted that Memphians would place their orders "with a sort of code that doesn't appear on any menu." He used as an example, "Gimme a white pulled." This meant "the lighter and juicier interior meat . . . pulled off the bone."

In the late 1970s, "pulled pork" started making its way outside of West Tennessee, appearing in restaurant ads in Louisville and Jackson, Mississippi. Its migration was boosted by the Kroger supermarket chain, which in 1980 began advertising "Pulled Pork BBQ" alongside fried chicken and sub sandwiches in its deli-bakeries. These ads first appeared in newspapers in Tennessee, but within a few years Kroger was selling pulled pork in an area stretching from Tallahassee to Vincennes, Indiana.

Pulled Pork BBQ Ad in Kroger
Advertisement for Pulled Pork BBQ in the Kroger Deli-Bakery, Johnson City Press, Johnson City, TN, 1980.

The national marketing of Memphis-style barbecue helped introduce the term to an even wider audience. In 1988, Corky's started shipping ribs and "pulled pork shoulder barbecue" across the country, a story that got picked up in newspapers from New York to Los Angeles. The following year, a group of investors that included several politicians from Tennessee opened Red Hot & Blue, a Washington, DC, restaurant that featured "Barbecue West Tennessee style, including ribs, both wet and dry, pulled pork, slaw and baked beans."

The real boom came in the 1990s and early 2000s, thanks to the popular resurgence of barbecue among restaurant diners and backyard cooks. A flood of barbecue cookbooks were released in the '90s, and many of them collected recipes from across American's different barbecue regions—and sometimes blurred those regions a bit.

Thrill of the Grill (1990), a cookbook from Chris Schlesinger, the chef at East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Massachusetts, included a recipe for a "North Carolina Pulled Pork" sandwich. In BBQ and All the Fixin's (1994), Simon Oren, a New York restaurateur who grew up in Israel and operated Brother's Bar-B-Q in Manhattan, included a recipe for smoked Boston butts that he also called "North Carolina Pulled Pork."

A wave of syndicated newspaper articles in the 1990s—many of them citing Schlesinger's and Oren's books—reinforced pulled pork's supposed Carolina origins. A 1994 Associated Press article, for instance, declared, "Pulled pork is a classic Carolina delicacy" and that it was "traditionally served with a vinegar marinade, affectionately known as pig sauce."

Now, I'm not saying that no one in the Carolinas dresses barbecue pork with something they call "pig sauce." I've just have never happened to meet them.

The rise of the Internet only hastened the regional blurring One can quickly fall down a rabbit hole—or a piggy hole, perhaps—reading thread after thread on meat-smoking forums from the early 2000s. They're filled with questions from barbecue novices who have heard about pulled pork but aren't sure how to make it: should you use Boston butts or whole shoulders? What temperature do you cook it to? What tools do you use to pull it?

One quickly realizes that between mass-market cookbooks and early Internet message boards, an entire generation of aspiring pitmasters were learning to cook barbecue not from their grandfathers or neighbors but from a crowd of mentors from all over the country. This phenomenon more than any other, I suspect, is why the 21st century has witnessed the flourishing of brisket cooking in places like Charlotte and of pork pulling out in Kansas City.

Now, if you want to barbecue a Boston butt and pull it into chunks and strands instead of chopping it with a cleaver, have at it. Keep the temp low and slow and use a good sauce (maybe a nice tangy Memphis-style one), and you'll wind up with tasty barbecue.

But I wouldn't waste an inch of butcher paper on pulled pork when visiting the great brisket joints of central Texas, and if you order pulled pork instead of pit-smoked ham when you're out in Kansas City—well, you're just plain missing out.

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