A rack of juicy ribs being turned over by tongs on a hot grill.
Food & Drink

Passion of the Pit: America’s BBQ Traditions

passion for the pit

Who doesn’t love a good barbecue? Other than apple pie, you’d be hard-pressed to find another food group more synonymous with America.  

Northerners, Midwesteners and those living on the West Coast can all appreciate the flavors of barbecue. They might even grow up with a healthy respect for the flavors, textures and techniques that surround the cooking style. All it takes is one visit to the Deep South to truly discover the magic of barbecue. See, once you cross that Mason-Dixon line, barbecue takes on a whole new meaning. Those with a passion for the pit revere their craft and treat it with intensity.

As a cooking technique, barbecue goes way back beyond when Christopher Columbus first landed in the Caribbean, where he found indigenous tribes already cooking meat over a flame. Spanish explorers later brought the method to America with them, where it quickly spread like wildfire through the colonies, eventually making its way all the way up to Virginia.

Barbecue techniques and recipes are part of a time-honored tradition, handed down from generation to generation. Today, it’s even bringing fine dining chefs out of the kitchen and into the pit. For those who cook it and those who eat it, barbecue is more than just a type of food — it’s a way of life.

Rooted in history

For pitmasters like Garry Roarke, also known as “Mississippi barbecue royalty,” barbecue is in their genes. The recipe for the signature sauce used in his Yazoo City, Mississippi restaurant, Ubon’s, goes back for at least five generations. His father, Ubon Roark, perfected the signature sauce in southeastern Missouri. where he makes pit-smoked chicken slathered in his now-famous sauce for celebrations and occasions. As his neighbors’ mouths watered smelling the unctuous, smoky aromas in the air, they’d walk over to where Ubon was cooking to buy jugs of his sauce.

Later, Garry made his foray into the barbecue world as a competitive pitmaster. He opened his Yazoo City restaurant in 2004, and it continues thriving. His daughter and co-owner of Ubon’s, Leslie Roark-Scott is poised to carry the torch as she continues the time-honored tradition while preparing the next generation — her son Jacob — as the future of Ubon’s.

Passion drives career choices

While Roarke’s legacy spans generations, for others, like award-winning spokesperson for The Big Green Egg, Ray Lampe, aka “Dr. BBQ,” the love starts somewhere else. In Lampe’s case, it wasn’t part of the family business. Instead, it came from his own growing passion for the craft that became one of his most beloved hobbies.

From his early days of cooking in rib contests his friend signed him up for in the 1980s to now, he’s won more than 300 contests, hundreds of awards and earned a place in the Barbecue Hall of Fame. Lampe might be a first generation barbecue professional, but he’s created an enduring career complete with a trip across the country sampling different barbecue, nine cookbooks and the distinction of being one of America’s top professional pitmasters.

He wasn’t born into a barbecue family, as Roarke was. The family business was a trucking company, which Lampe worked for 25 years. In his downtime, he would grab a cooler of meat and head out to the nearest competition. When his trucking business was nearing the end of the road, Lampe closed the door on that venture and devoted himself to turning his hobby into his new profession, first from his Florida food truck. He later dabbled in magazine writing, instructing others with his barbecue techniques and ultimately landed a gig as spokesperson for The Big Green Egg, a uniquely shaped charcoal grill.

From his early days of cooking in rib contests his friend signed him up for in the 1980s to now, he’s won more than 300 contests, hundreds of awards and earned a place in the Barbecue Hall of Fame.

Barbecue’s two constants

After traveling the U.S. while sampling regional takes on barbecue, Lampe quickly learned that there are many different styles out there. The “Barbecue Belt,” stretches from North and South Carolina in the East to Missouri and Texas to the West to the Deep South. Each region and state has its own traditions and unique spin. And each area plays a role in the longstanding feud over who does barbecue best.

But when you talk with pitmasters like Roarke and Lampe, it becomes clear that no matter what type of wood, meat or seasoning you choose, good barbecue is marked by two must-haves: tender, juicy meat and flavors that knock your socks right off.