To paraphrase a fictitious Southerner, barbecue is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're gonna get.
Ask for barbecue in Mississippi, and you're going to get served something entirely different from what you'd get if you made the same request in North Carolina. Ask for hash in Alabama, and you'll probably get, "What, corned beef?" as a reply.
Barbecue - authentic barbecue - is uniquely Southern, and true to the South's tradition of regional independence, that dish has evolved differently throughout the former Confederacy. After all, the South fought a war for states' rights, and, some would argue, lost that war because of states' rights.
So it should come as no surprise that in Huntsville, Ala., your ribs will come served with a mayonnaise(!)-based sauce, while in Lexington, N.C., folks are content to just soak their ribs in a little vinegar and pepper.
THERE IS ONE unifying principle among the disparate Southern barbecue styles, though, that our friends above the Mason-Dixon just can't seem to grasp: With Southern barbecue, the meat is always slowly and carefully cooked for hours, or even days.
"Northerners think they are barbecuing when they slap some hamburgers and hot dogs on a grill for a few minutes and slip it on a bun. But you and I know that's not barbecue," said Bill Ferris, director of the University of Mississippi's Institute for the Study of Southern Culture in Oxford.
In keeping with the Southern affinity for things traditional, barbecuing is an ancient art, practiced by the Romans, Greeks and Chinese. Lacking refrigeration, those cultures perfected the art of slowly cooking a slab of meat or whole animal over low heat. That way a single animal could provide food for days instead of just one meal.
"That's where the term `pig pickings' came from. People would turn a whole hog over a fire and slowly cook him over several days. As the meat cooked on the outside, they would pick off that meat and eat it while they waited for the inside to cook," said Steve Mitchell, co-owner of Treybon, a barbecue-Cajun restaurant on Reynolds Street.
THE SOUTHERN CLIMATE and its residents' gift for gab also play a large role in Dixie's dominance in barbecuing. Before air conditioning allowed any old Yankee to tolerate the humid shirt-stickin'-to-your-skin summers of the South, cooking outdoors was the best way to keep the house and cook relatively cool. And since you're going to be outside tending to the hog, why not have a few of your best buddies around to sip a little bourbon and talk about the boss behind his back?
"There are places where they'll sit out three days before the actual barbecue, and they'll play to the meat," Mr. Mitchell said. "A bunch of men will get together and sing, play guitar and tell stories around the clock while they watch over the meat. It's more of a social affair than anything else."
But while all Southern barbecue involves slow-cooked meat, that's where the similarities end.
Go west toward Texas and Arkansas, and beef is the meat favored to grace the smoker. Throughout most of the rest of the South, if you ask for barbecue you'll likely get some form of pork. Chicken and wild game fill in the gaps between the porcine and bovine regions.
And then there are the sauces - or lack of sauces. They start out as a thin and tart concoction of vinegar and pepper in eastern North Carolina, then start picking up some sweetness and thickness through the more Southern and Western states of the South. Somewhere along the way, mustard, mayonnaise or tomatoes find their way into the mix.
IN SOME PARTS of the western South, the meat is coated with a mixture of herbs and spices - a "rub" - which cooks on as a crust, sealing in the meat's juices. That meat is often served dry, with a dollop of a thick tomato-based sauce served on the side for dipping.
South Carolina has become a microcosm of Southern sauces, with each part of the state offering a different interpretation of slather.
"Around Edgefield to about Columbia, you have a mustard-based sauce, and from Barnwell on down, you have a ketchup or tomato-based sauce. And in Georgia, you have a variation of vinegar and pepper," said Bobby Griffin, owner of Bobby's Bar-B-Q Buffet on U.S. Highway 1 in Warrenville, S.C.
Mr. Griffin's barbecue sauce is a blend of the area's sauces, but he lets customers decide for themselves if they want to coat their meat, which Mr. Griffin says is good all by itself.
"The secret is sealing in the smoke," said Mr. Griffin, who cooks his pork and chicken - marinated beforehand in a vinegar mixture - in giant electric ovens sealed with 3,000-pound lids. There the pork stays for the better part of a day, absorbing the smoke created by the meat juice striking the heating elements.
"That's where all your flavor comes from, even if you're cooking with wood. It's the smoke from the drippings that makes it taste the way it does," Mr. Griffin said.
BUT TO SOME BARBECUE true-believers, the stuff prepared in electric cookers, which is what most Augusta-area restaurants use, is not really barbecue.
"If you aren't burning wood, you ain't barbecuing," said Cliff Tennant, an Aiken resident who heads a barbecue competition team and is a certified barbecue judge.
Most of the competitors on the nationwide barbecue circuit - including those who compete at Augusta's annual June Lock and Ham Jam - eschew gas and electricity in favor of straight wood or charcoal.
"The wood adds a flavor all its own. If you use different wood - or different blends of woods - you get a different flavor," Mr. Tennant said.
ONE LOCAL RESTAURANT that sticks with tradition is Sconyers Bar-B-Que, which cooks its meat with charred oak and hickory.
"That's the way we've been doing it for 40 years. I think it's the best way," said owner Larry Sconyers, who turned over the restaurant's day-to-day affairs to a professional management team after becoming Augusta mayor in January.
Another Sconyers tradition that has made its mark in the Augusta area is the restaurant's trademark hash, which has been adopted at other local restaurants. In fact, it's almost a breach of etiquette to order a slab of ribs without a side-dish of white rice smothered with a mix of barbecued meats.
"Hash, at least this kind of hash, is unique to this area. I guarantee you won't find anything like it outside of this area," said Mr. Mitchell.
In other areas, hash - if it is served at all - is more like a stew, with recognizable chunks of meat and vegetables, not the fibrous mass of blended meats found in Augusta.
"My daddy said if he wanted vegetables, he'd eat soup. So our hash is mostly meat," Mr. Sconyers said.
Hash evolved as a way to use every possible portion of the pig. Whatever wouldn't work on the grill - the head, feet, liver - found its way into a boiling pot until it was reduced to a mush. The cooks then blended the meat with equally overcooked potatoes and onions to form a palatable dressing for plain rice or bread.
Mr. Sconyers said his hash recipe now includes only upper-grade cuts of pork, turkey and beef. That holds true for the other restaurants that serve the local-style hash.
"Nowadays, most people don't use pigs feet or brains in their hash," said David James, manager of Edmunds Bar-B-Que on Edgefield Road in Belvedere. "It's pretty much the same meat that you get in the regular barbecue."
You can sample some barbecue styles - along with hot wings and French cuisine - at this Saturday's Taste of Augusta.
The annual event brings 14 Augusta restaurants to the Riverwalk, where visitors can sample dishes from eateries ranging from Hooters to French Market Grille.
Three barbecue restaurants - Sconyers Bar-B-Que, Damons and Treybon - will offer samples for $3 or less.
Admission is free, with live music, dancing, a swimsuit fashion show and a petting zoo among the activities.
Hours are from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and proceeds benefit Junior Achievement and Habitat for Humanity.