I don’t know for a fact that Rodney Dangerfield liked barbecue chicken, but I’m willing to bet he did. Though chicken is now the most popular meat in America, when it comes to barbecue, the original white meat gets no respect.
When people talk about regional barbecue styles, you’ll often hear blanket statements like this: “There are two principal styles in North Carolina, and both feature pork exclusively.” Now, I will admit that in the Carolinas if you tell someone “order me some barbecue” they aren’t going to ask, “pork or chicken?” Used in isolation, “barbecue” means pork, but there is a thing called “barbecued chicken,” and you can find it in just about any establishment that has a barbecue pit. Even old-school whole-hog joints like Scott’s in Hemingway, SC, and Grady’s in Dudley, NC, serve it.
And it’s the same across the South. You’ll find chicken alongside the ribs and burnt ends at Arthur Bryant’s and Gates’ in Kansas City. The Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, KY, is famous for mutton, but the first item on the dinner menu is a BBQ Chicken Plate. In fact, while the preference for pork vs beef vs mutton is the key factor in defining the barbecue regions of the South, chicken may well be the constant that ties them together. (Except in Texas, for some reason, where you’re far more likely to find not chicken but turkey accompanying the “holy trinity” of brisket, ribs, and sausage. But there’s no accounting for Texas.)
This broad geographical appeal should be no surprise, since, properly done, barbecued chicken is a thing of wonder—tender, juicy, and satisfying. Unlike pork or beef, it’s typically served with the skin still on, and that mahogany jacket is a repository of smoky flavor. It takes well to all sorts of sauces, too, from the bright yellow mustard in the Midlands of South Carolina to the thick brown stuff out in Kansas City.
I’ve long thought of Alabama as the epicenter of barbecue chicken in the South. Big Bob Gibson of Decatur, Alabama, after all, invented his now-famous white mayonnaise-based barbecue sauce specifically to adorn poultry. If you’ve never sampled that particular Alabama delicacy you’ve got a new item for your 2016 to-do list.
But Decatur’s not the only place to find great Alabama-style chicken. People love the beef and pork at Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q in Vestavia Hills, just outside of Birmingham. For me, though, the chicken is the real star. Eminently smoky, the outside of the tender meat is almost purple in color, and that smoky bite blends perfectly with the tangy, peppery white barbecue sauce.
And let’s not forget chicken wings, for the barbecue treatment does wonders for just about every part of the bird, as best as I can tell, except perhaps the livers and the gizzard. In recent years, smoked wings have enjoyed quite a run of popularity, and it’s an innovation I can get behind—so succulent and delicious that you might forget altogether those tongue-blasting creations from Buffalo.
So I say it’s time for us to recognize barbecue chicken as the fine Southern delicacy that it is. It may be the second fiddle of the barbecue world, but it still plays a mighty fine tune.