The Kentucky Report: Shoulder, Monroe County-Style

November 2, 2015 | By | Comments (11)

welcome The Kentucky Report: Shoulder, Monroe County Style

My barbecue travels recently took me on a swing through Kentucky, including a late afternoon drive through Monroe County in the south-central part of the state, home to one of America’s most distinctive and largely-unheralded barbecue styles.

We’re not talking mutton and burgoo—the elements most commonly associated with Kentucky barbecue. Those are found further west. In Monroe County, pork and chicken are the name of the game, along with a few items you won’t find anywhere else.

There’s “vinegar slaw” for instance—called such to distinguish it from the white-dressed “mayo slaw.” People dress their slaw with vinegar all over the country, but not quite the way it’s done at places like R&S Barbecue in Tompkinsville. The cabbage is diced fine and marinated in a sugar-laced vinegar mix until it’s almost translucent, and it ends up supremely tangy, cool, and sweet.

But the real hallmark of the Monroe County style is shoulder—pork shoulder, to be precise, but locals omit the “pork” part as unnecessary. In the rest of the South, when barbecue fans say “pork shoulder” they mean whole picnics or Boston butts cooked low and slow over smoky heat and then pulled into long shreds or chopped into bits. Not in Monroe County. Here, “shoulder” means something very different.

They start with Boston butt that’s still frozen and use a meat saw to cut it into bone-in slices just a half inch thick. Once thawed, the slices are cooked on an open pit fired with hickory coals. Being so thin, they don’t need much time on the pit—45 minutes or less—but that’s plenty long enough to impart a subtle smoky flavor to the meat.

shoulder 2

A shoulder plate with vinegar slaw and potato salad at R&S Barbecue, Tompkinsville, Kentucky

It’s served with “dip,” a thin, pungent sauce made from distilled vinegar with a little butter or lard (or both) and plenty of black and cayenne pepper. For me, that dip is the key. Without it, shoulder is really just a rather chewy slice of fire-singed pork, more akin to country ham than anything else. Let it steep for a while down in that tangy, pepper-laden sauce, though, and it’s an absolute delight.

Some doctrinaire barbecue fans might declare such a preparation to be grilling, not barbecue. I’ll let Western Kentucky University professor Wes Berry, author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book and authority on all things barbecue in the Bluegrass State, adjudicate that question. “So what?” Berry writes. “It still tastes like smoke and pork, and people around here love it. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you call it—grilled pork steak, shoulder, or barbecue—because the stuff is good. Eat it.”

Wise counsel, Professor.


  1. James Proffitt

    No love for slaw burgers? How about suicide sauce?

    November 7, 2016 at 7:57 pm
  2. Alden. Hammer

    Yes I was borned in Monroe county in the fifteys a black fellow named Hask Evens and Willie Burton Cole had barbecue stand in grand view next door to a restaurant this is were this style of tastes and barbecue started;

    November 3, 2016 at 2:22 pm
  3. Linkdown: 11/4/15 | Barbecue Bros

    […] – In Monroe County, Kentucky, pork shoulder means something completely different […]

    November 4, 2015 at 10:57 am
  4. Kathleen

    Johnnietta England Jessie,
    Thank you!

    November 3, 2015 at 8:17 am
  5. Ronnie Wooten

    I have eaten barbeque in several states, and R&S is by far the best I have ever eaten including Porky Pig in BG, none hold a light to Anita Hamilton’s at R&S. period

    November 2, 2015 at 5:27 pm
  6. Nikko

    Smoky Pig is in Bowling Green in Warren county. So don’t go looking for it in Monroe county. Also, the ribs there are the best in southern Kentucky! Come early to get your because they run out before dinner. They’re that good!

    November 2, 2015 at 4:59 pm
  7. Johnnietta England Jessie

    Kathleen, I figure that is a hotdog with shredded BBQ on it. There is so much more that goes into the sauce. Each place has their own recipe. It can include brown sugar, mustard, garlic, onion, molasses, ketchup or other secret ingredients. They should have tried Jaydee’s at Gamaliel.

    November 2, 2015 at 3:39 pm
  8. Kathleen

    S. Denise Rouse,
    I call it light bread, too. Nice to hear that expression again.

    November 2, 2015 at 3:04 pm
  9. S. Denise Rouse

    Thank You for sharing! As a native of Monroe County, Kentucky, and a ‘Roe-County BBQ fan who will happily drive the 2+ hours to get a good barbeque, I was glad to read your piece…. (for me barbeque = shoulder, as a given, double beans and all of it drowned/loaded down in sauce – with sliced loaf or “light bread” to go with it…. dipping the bread in the sauce is perfection even without any meat “sandwiched” on it!) the sauce works wonders on many things – most meats – to include: hamburgers, hotdogs, sliced cooked ham, fried bologna chicken & of course pork……. but beans, mixed in (just to flavour) potato salad or slaw (mayo. style esp.)…. hardboiled eggs and just so many other things taste all the better with a bit of good ‘aged’ Monroe County Style sauce on them….

    November 2, 2015 at 2:35 pm
  10. Kathleen

    PS: What is the “shred dog” on the menu?

    November 2, 2015 at 2:01 pm
  11. Kathleen

    Thank you for your articles. I’m totally unfamiliar with Kentucky BBQ, so I really appreciate you sharing this.
    The coleslaw kinda looks like old timey cabbage relish that we’d can in the fall.

    November 2, 2015 at 2:00 pm

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