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Statewide Food 3

It’s Time for Some Arkansas Barbecue


May is National Barbecue Month, and Arkansas’ rich history is a flavorful tapestry interwoven with the state’s diverse cultural heritage and culinary traditions. From the early days of European settlement, when settlers brought their barbecue techniques and recipes to the region, to the present day, where Arkansas is renowned for its delectable barbecue offerings, the state has played a significant role in shaping the evolution of this beloved cuisine.

What is Barbecue?

“Barbecue” refers to meat cooking over indirect heat, usually with smoke. However, in Arkansas, barbecue is more than just a cooking method—it’s a way of life! In the heart of Arkansas, where the smoke of hickory and oak wood fills the air, barbecue is not merely a culinary technique but a cultural phenomenon deeply rooted in tradition. It’s a way of life that transcends the act of cooking and becomes a celebration of community, heritage, and the simple pleasures of gathering around a shared meal that extends beyond a restaurant dining room.

Simply put, barbecue helps us do what we do – eat and gather with others!

The barbecue tradition in Arkansas is as diverse as its people. Whether succulent pulled pork, tender smoked brisket or mouthwatering ribs; each region has its unique style and flavor profile. The aroma of wood smoke permeates the air, tantalizing taste buds and creating an atmosphere of anticipation and excitement.

Who does Barbecue? 

Well that’s what inspired this series. Every year, I work on stories about Women’s History Month in March or Black History Month in February, and I always come across a name without a big story: Mary John from Arkansas County. While the 1880s didn’t often record the story of a black woman, the fact that we know anything about her speaks volumes about what she became.

In 1840, she bought her freedom with $800 and stayed in the area to open a hotel and tavern at Arkansas Post. As a native of New Orleans with deep Creole roots, she embedded the flavors of the French settlers with what she knew, and her hotel gained a strong reputation for its “dinner cuisine.”

Arkansas Gazette, June 6 1857, Arkansas Archives.

Mary John was what we could call a pitmaster today, heralded for her venison steaks and dark roast coffee. “A contemporary historian wrote that she ran ‘the only hotel or public house in the county, which was, perhaps, the most celebrated in the State for the perfection of its cuisine.'”

Arkansas considers barbecue joints and smokehouses revered spaces where pitmasters have honed their craft over many years, perfecting their recipes and techniques. They take pride in their creations, carefully selecting the finest cuts of meat, marinating them with secret blends of spices, and slow cooking them with patience and precision.

Mary John paved the way for what many in Arkansas would love as Delta Barbecue. For years, smokers, grillers and pitmasters only ran restaurants, but barbecue became a pastime for generations to share. Much like sacred family recipes, barbecue techniques are shared from dads and mothers to sons and daughters, raising a new generation of “home” cooks smoking things from hunted meats to cheese dip and jalapenos wrapped with bacon!

What sets Barbecue styles apart?

In the heart of Arkansas, where tradition meets flavor, barbecue takes center stage as a beloved culinary art form. The magic of Arkansas barbecue lies not only in the quality of the meat but also in the seasoning.


In Arkansas, barbecue usually references pork, but beef, chicken and sausages are also popular. Pork shoulder, ribs, and pulled pork are all classic Arkansas barbecue dishes. Many use dry rubs or marinades to season meat before being smoked for several hours.

When it comes to pork, the tender, succulent shoulder is a true delicacy. The meat melts in the mouth when slow-cooked for hours, leaving a symphony of flavors. While ribs offer a delightful balance of smokiness and caramelized goodness. The meat effortlessly falls off the bone, creating a truly unforgettable experience. Do you remember the first time you ate a rib?

Sauce Styles

Arkansas is home to two distinct barbecue sauce styles: Eastern and Western. Eastern Arkansas barbecue sauce is typically vinegar-based, while Western Arkansas barbecue sauce is tomato-based. Both styles of sauce are delicious and have unique fans.

Eastern Arkansas barbecue sauce is a testament to the power of simplicity. It is typically a vinegar-based sauce, allowing the tangy and acidic vinegar notes to take center stage. The sauce is often imbued with a touch of heat, ranging from a gentle warmth to a fiery kick, depending on the preferences of the pitmaster. Eastern Arkansas barbecue sauce pairs exceptionally well with pork, chicken and ribs, enhancing the meat’s natural flavors without overpowering them.

In contrast, Western Arkansas barbecue sauce offers a delightful tomato-based experience. This sauce is characterized by its rich, slightly sweet and smoky flavor, achieved through ripe tomatoes, molasses and spices. Western Arkansas barbecue sauce is often thicker and more complex to pair wonderfully with beef, brisket and sausage.

Rub or Seasoning Style

In addition to the sauce, barbecue is often seasoned with a rub or seasoning mixture, adding layers of flavor and enhancing the taste of the meat. Rubs can be made with various spices and herbs and each pitmaster has their secret recipe. Some popular rubs include salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, coffee grounds, and chili powder.

Pitmasters apply the rubs in various ways. Some prefer to apply the rub liberally to the surface of the meat, shaking off the seasoning. In contrast, others use a more delicate approach, gently rubbing the mixture into the meat’s crevices and ensuring even distribution. Rubs can be used on various types of meat, including pork, beef, chicken and fish. Some chefs swear by using only the rub for seasoning, positing a slimy sauce messes up the flavors.

Used with permission from the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism.

Tools and Techniques

One of the most defining characteristics of Arkansas barbecue is the use of a pit for cooking the meat. Pits are large, enclosed cooking chambers typically made of brick, metal or concrete. The meat is cooked slowly over indirect heat, allowing the smoke to penetrate it and give it a delicious, smoky flavor.

The type of wood used for smoking the meat also plays a vital role in the flavor of Arkansas barbecue. Hickory, oak, and pecan are typical because they are nearby in Arkansas timber fields. Each imparts a specific flavor to the meat.

The cooking process is also essential, as the meat is typically cooked for several hours until it is tender and juicy. Smoking meats cannot be rushed, and the prime experience only transpires in a “low and slow” format.

This month, we plan to take you on a culinary tour around Arkansas, stopping at some of our favorite barbecue locations and introducing you to the flavors and techniques that set them apart. It’s a magical time in Arkansas, where the spirit of barbecue shines brightly, bringing people together and creating a unique sense of belonging.

Leave a comment and let us know where you love to grab a bite of barbecue, anywhere in Arkansas.

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Keisha (Pittman) McKinney lives in Northwest Arkansas with her chicken man and break-dancing son. Keisha is passionate about connecting people and building community, seeking solutions to the everyday big and small things, and encouraging others through the mundane, hard, and typical that life often brings. She put her communications background to work as a former Non-profit Executive Director, college recruiter and fundraiser, small business trainer, and Digital Media Director at a large church in Northwest Arkansas. Now, she is using those experiences through McKinney Media Solutions and her blog @bigpittstop, which includes daily adventures, cooking escapades, #bigsisterchats, the social justice cases on her heart, and all that she is learning as a #boymom! Keisha loves to feed birds, read the stack on her nightstand, do dollar store crafts, cook recipes from her Pinterest boards, and chase everyday adventures on her Arkansas bucket list.

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3 responses to “It’s Time for Some Arkansas Barbecue”

  1. […] we shared in our barbecue history last week, the most popular barbecue meat in North Arkansas is pulled pork. This dish is made by […]

  2. Jeff says:

    Where are you stopping first?
    Can’t wait to see where you go!!

  3. […] It’s Time for Some Arkansas Barbecue […]

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