George Washington loved barbecue, but he didn’t always know how to spell it. “Went into Alexandria to a barbecue and stayed all night,” reads a 1769 diary entry from the Founding Father. A year later, he wrote of attending a large “barbicue” and staying until sunset.
Nearly 250 years later, Americans share George Washington’s love for barbecue. The last decade has seen trendy smoke houses open up in nearly every major city in the country, and who among us wouldn’t want to turn the meal into an all-night affair?
But the country also shares his confusion—but not over spelling anymore—of barbecue’s fundamental identity. Across the Barbecue Belt, which spans from Virginia westward to Texas, cities have created distinct definitions of how best to prepare and serve smoked meats. Eastern North Carolina towns douse pork with vinegar; further West, and into Tennessee and Missouri, barbecue fiends add ketchup to the sauce. In much of Texas, tradition mandates no sauce at all.
In this year’s America’s Favorite Places survey, Travel + Leader readers cast their votes on which destinations get barbecue right. Several winners, including Memphis, Tennessee, have a cooking style all their own. Others, like Richmond, Virginia, are cities without any particular barbecue conventions. Instead, local pitmasters there have successfully cherry-picked cooking techniques from every region. What all winning cities have in common, however, is a deep appreciation for slow-cooking and low-fuss eating. George Washington would be proud.
Read on for the full list.