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Where Did American Barbecue Originate? Why Virginia, of Course!

February 22, 2021 Visit USA No Comments

Barbecue is one of those truly American foods. It’s likely you’ve heard references to a variety of common barbecue sauces and styles – from Memphis and North Carolina to Texas and Kansas City. But as some scholars will tell you, the American tradition of barbecue didn’t start in any of those destinations. It started right here in Virginia. And while Virginia-style barbecue may not be as common as other versions, you can still sample some in the Commonwealth today.

Virginia is the birthplace of America – home to the first permanent English settlement in the New World at Jamestown. So, it only makes sense that Virginia would be the birthplace of American barbecue as well. When you study the history of barbecue – as meat cooked over a grill or pit, covered in spices and basting sauce – the concept is said to have originated in the Caribbean, referring to barbacoa, their word for grilling on a raised wooden grate. But American barbecue, as it is served today, has its own unique spin. Those specific origins date back to colonial times. George Washington notes attending a “barbicue” in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1769 and by the mid-18th-century, American-style, outdoor barbecues had become one of the key social events in Old Dominion society.

As the country expanded westwards, barbecue followed along, and people changed their barbecue traditions to fit their new locale, trying out new meats in different ways and making sauces with more readily available ingredients. You can learn much more about the history of barbecue from Joseph R. Haynes in his book “Virginia Barbecue: A History”.

We can also look to Haynes for information about what makes Virginia barbecue unique. Traditional Virginia barbecue includes chopped and sliced smoked pork and beef (though, until recently, not brisket), but Haynes says it is primarily identified by four sauces. They are:

The tangy vinegar, tomato-mustard blend sauce of the Tidewater area
The vinegar- and spice-based, Worcestershire -inflected sauce of central Virginia
The vinegar- and herb-based sauce of the Shenandoah Valley
The sweet tomato-based (sometimes called mahogany) sauce of Northern Virginia.
Haynes also adds that Virginia barbecue includes wood-smoked Shenandoah-style barbecue chicken, basted with an herbaceous vinegar-based sauce.

So where can you try some of this unique Virginia barbecue? Below are just a few of the places to mark on your map for a future Virginia barbecue taste-testing road-trip:

Allman’s Bar-B-Q – Fredericksburg – Haynes says their sauce has the spicy, vinegary flavors used in Mary Randolph’s 1824 cookbook “The Virginia Housewife.”
Ace Biscuit & Barbecue – Charlottesville – Its Virginia Red is seasoned with cider vinegar, root beer, ginger and Worcestershire.
King’s Famous Barbecue – Petersburg – Owned and operated by the King family since 1946, they offer slow-cooked, pit-smoked BBQ pork, beef and chicken with a classic tomato-based mustard blend that tends toward sweet.
Shaffer’s Barbecue – Middleton – Serving traditional Virginia Barbecue from a stand at the Shenandoah County Fair in Woodstock, VA, every year since 1956, Shaffer’s now serves up tasty barbecue from a food truck and a market.
The Barbeque Exchange – Gordonsville – Serves a version of Southside sauce called Hog Fire, plus a tangy Colonial Bacon sauce, which includes their house-smoked bacon.
Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company in Virginia offers up recipes for some of the sauce types Haynes references in his book in this article with Gear Patrol – they even nicely pair each sauce with one of their beers! The recipes are listed below to help you try your own hand at some classic Virginia barbecue.

Southside Barbecue Sauce – good for beef, pork or chicken – pair with Devils Backbone Eight Point IPA

Makes about 16oz

1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup hot sauce
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons yellow mustard


Thoroughly mix all ingredients in a blender. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for 24–48 hours before serving.

Shenandoah Valley Sauce – best with chicken – pair with Devils Backbone Vienna Lager

Makes about 20 ounces

2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup neutral cooking oil
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 lemon, juiced


Mix all ingredients well. Store in an airtight container overnight. Warm and shake well before using.

How to Make Shenandoah Valley-Style Barbecue Chicken

Make the base dressing for the dry rub by mixing 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar and 1 tablespoon neutral cooking oil.
Make the dry rub by mixing 2 tablespoons salt, 1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper, 1 tablespoon poultry seasoning, 1 teaspoon mild paprika, 1 teaspoon granulated garlic, 1 teaspoon light brown sugar, 1 packet of True Lemon crystallized lemon, red pepper flakes (to taste).
Butterfly a whole roasting chicken by removing the backbone. Put the chicken skin-side up and press down on the breastbone until it lies flat. Flip the chicken over and apply some of the dressing (step 1), followed by some of the rub (step 2).
Flip the chicken over so that it is skin-side up. Apply the barbecue rub directly to the meat under the skin over the breast, drumstick (or long legs, in Virginia) and thighs (or short legs).
Coat the outside of the skin with the remaining dressing and rub. Place the chicken in a Ziploc bag or wrap it in plastic wrap, and store in a container to catch any liquid that might leak.
Refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
To cook the chicken, prepare a smoker for indirect heat at a temperature between 275–300 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the chicken skin-side up and cook until the breast, wings and legs reach an internal temperature of 165–170 degrees Fahrenheit and juices run clear.
Drizzle with Shenandoah Valley-style sauce before serving, and keep remaining sauce within easy reach when eating.

Chesterfield-Style Goober Sauce – best with pork ribs – pair with Devils Backbone Eight Point IPA

Makes about 20oz

1 cup tomato juice
1–1 1/2 cups brown sugar, adjusted to taste
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 level teaspoon creamy peanut butter
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cayenne pepper (to taste)


Add all ingredients except tomato juice to a saucepan. Heat, without bringing to a simmer, until peanut butter and sugar have melted, stirring as needed.
Remove from heat, whisk in tomato juice and let cool. Allow sauce to rest overnight before serving.
Brush onto ribs to serve.

Northern Virginia Barbecue Sauce – use with chicken, pork or beef – pair with Devils Backbone Black Lager

Makes about 20oz

1 1/2 cups tomato ketchup
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup apple butter
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice


Add all ingredients except lemon juice to a saucepan. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
Once simmering, remove from heat, stir in lemon juice and let cool.


“Virginia Barbecue: A History” by Joseph R. Haynes
Washington Post
Smithsonian Magazine
Gear Patrol presented by Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company
A vacation to Virginia is all about discovering what you love. Learn more about the topics above or plan your travels at

Virginia is for Lovers / Visit Virginia channels: Twitter: @VisitVirginia / Facebook: /VisitVirginia

Instagram: @VisitVirginia

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