A Road Trip of a Lifetime...


with Mike Johnston
April 23, 2016
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Tags: BBQ Chasing BBQ
A Road Trip of a Lifetime...

Barbecuing is the ultimate “spice” form of cooking. Yeah, I said it! Sure, some will argue that Indian cooking (with a long history of amazing curries using a multitude of spices) is, others would lean toward Thai, and many would land on the side of Mexico with their complex, spice-rich mole sauces. They would all have valid points and strong arguments that on a different day I might have to side with. But not today. Today I’m a proud American, touting one of our cooking styles that—believe it or not—is being enthusiastically replicated around the world. Great foodie cities like London and Paris now have locally-owned barbecue joints offering specific styles of American regional barbecue.  We always knew that American barbecue had that certain “je ne sais quoi”, but now others are starting to get it too!

17th St BBQ
Mike Mills from 17th Street BBQ - Murphysboro, IL

Over 10+ years of selling spices and developing seasonings, the barbecue section has consistently received the most attention from our customers and me. Even with all of the attention I’ve given it, it is clear that our customers are still salivating for even more flavor combos! So, I decided an exploration into American regional barbecue was in order. Through my research, I learned that (the consensus is) seven specific regions make up the family tree of American barbecue.

1.  Central Texas
2.  East Texas
3.  Memphis
4.  Alabama
5.  South Carolina
6.  North Carolina
7.  Kansas City

So I set a course with these seven areas as my primary targets; but not an itinerary so rigid that I might miss out on the opportunity to visit a barbecue joint that wasn’t originally on my radar.

My original plan was very aggressive in terms of the number of joints I wanted to hit versus the days I had allotted; 76 barbecue joints in 38 days!  While I liked the idea of needing to hit only two stops a day (I figured I could easily eat barbecue twice a day), I didn’t love the idea of doing it without any breaks. Plus, my route would have me driving past trout rivers that I knew I would want to cast a few flies into. With that in mind, I revised my plan; I’d leave Denver on August 14th and return on September 25th—just in time to host a barbecue party at my home on the 26th.  That meant I now had 43 days on the road. With those extra days I could take a two day break every two weeks to do some fishing and catch up on some veggies, or so I thought.

On August 14, 2015 I packed my bags, loaded up my truck, hitched up my camper and headed south on I-25 to begin Chasing Barbecue. Amazingly I would drive more than 7000 miles without so much as a flat tire or speeding ticket, catch and release 50+ fish, hit 88 barbecue joints in 14 states, and make it home the evening of September 25th to cook barbecue for my golf league friends on 26th. Oh, I almost forgot the swag; along the way I collected 66 barbecue tees and 21 hats!

Before leaving on my Chasing Barbecue road trip, I had some concerns about what all this barbecue feasting could or would ultimately do to me.


Heirloom Market BBQ
Heirloom Market BBQ - Atlanta, GA

Would eating barbecue multiple times a day, day after day, kill my love for it?

Would I gain so much weight that I would have to stop and buy some fat pants just to make it through the trip? (My team here in Denver had a weight gain pool and some were betting I’d gain as much as 15-20 pounds on the trip!)

Could my cholesterol levels spike and become a danger? And how does one even know that’s what is happening when it happens?

What about meat sweats, whatever the heck they are? Would I experience them and have to drop out early (and let my Savory team down) because I was a meat-sweating quitter?

And worst of all, as I’m quickly approaching 50, might I drop dead of a barbeque-overload induced heart attack? (Though, death by barbecue might not be the worst way to go.)

Obviously the last one didn’t happen because I’m writing this but none of the others did either…at least not to me!  Believe it or not, even in the latter days of my Chasing Barbecue road trip, I was always psyched for the first stop of the day. It was the second, third, and sometimes fourth and fifth stops that were challenging.  Most days I ended up hitting 3 barbecue joints. Breakfast typically wasn’t an option so I’d generally arrive around 11am for an early lunch, have a late lunch around 2pm, and finish with a dinner at 6pm. That’s not a lot of digestion time between meals and I realized early on that I needed to develop an eating strategy.



If you followed my trip on Facebook last summer, while I was live-blogging it, you saw me post many photos of massive amounts of barbecue. The reason I ordered a lot (aside from wanting to share an impressive pic) was so I could get the best possible representation of what each of these regional barbecue aficionados had to offer. I would take a single bite of each item on the plate and then allow myself two or three additional bites of my favorites. If they had barbecue sauces I’d use my extra bites to try each of those. I didn’t just try their ‘cue, I was also on the hunt for info on the regional differences in sides and desserts. I tried to apply the same strategy for those but desserts didn’t always make it easy. You try walking away from scrumptious, chewy, fried pie filled with warm peaches or a cup of creamy banana pudding chock-full of a nostalgic, childhood favorite—vanilla wafer cookies! I was pretty diligent in sticking with my strategy but if I strayed I simply ‘punished’ myself with an extra mile on my run the next morning.

Trying all that ‘cue without having conversations with the expert pitmasters who made it would have been a missed opportunity. So every day I tried to be the most extroverted version of myself. If you know me personally, you know that I tend to lean introvert. After all, I have an extroverted crutch I can lean on: Janet, my outgoing, easy-on-the-eyes wife! She has opened doors and started conversations that make our lives much more interesting and I’m grateful to her for that. But she wasn’t down for eating barbecue every day for more than a month; so if I wanted to gather the best information I needed to “man up”, put a smile on my face, and engage…damn it!

And engage I did! By itself, Chasing Barbecue for 43 days and hitting 88 joints makes for a great road trip. But the people I met along the way made it the road trip of a lifetime.


Paul Kirk - The Baron of Barbecue
Paul Kirk - The Baron of Barbecue

I got to hang out, talk barbecue, and get tips from three legendary barbecue Hall of Famers (yes, there is a barbecue Hall of Fame): Pat Burke, Mike “The Legend” Mills, and Paul “The Baron of BBQ” Kirk. Pat Burke has won more barbecue titles and championships than any living person. His triumphs include three Grand World Championships, five Memphis in May titles, and The Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational. Mike Mills has won four World Championships, three Memphis in May titles, The Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational, and Jack Daniel’s Sauce Championship. Paul Kirk has won more than 500 cooking and barbecue awards including seven World Championships highlighted by wins in the American Royal World Series of Barbecue Open Contest, the American Royal Invitational, The Jack Daniel’s Invitational, and let’s not forget his 12 cookbooks and that he is a founding member of the Kansas City Barbecue Society.

I also met and had ‘cue convos with some of the most fascinating people in the business. In Texas that included Big Ern Servantes, the winner of Chopped Grill Masters; Roy Perez, the pitmaster for 28+ years at the historic Kreuz Market in the “Mecca of Barbecue,” Lockhart, Texas; Tootsie Tomanetz, the original female pitmaster (still womanning the pits at 80+ years old!); John Mueller, the bad boy of Texas barbecue (his barbecue family tree includes grandfather Louie, father Bobby, brother Wayne, sister LeAnn, and assorted other rising pitmasters in and around Texas); and Daniel Vaughn, aka The Barbecue Snob, the barbecue editor for Texas Monthly (the publication annually determines the top 50 barbecue joints in Texas).

In Memphis the conversational ‘cue highlights included Craig Blondis, co-founder of Central BBQ; Eric Vernon, whose family operates the number one barbecue joint in the country according to Food Network; and Bobby Bradley of Cozy Corner BBQ, whose family has been serving up a barbecue original, Cornish hens, since 1977.


Christopher Prieto from Prime BBQ
Christopher Prieto from Prime BBQ - Wendell, NC

In Alabama I sat down and talked ‘cue with Miss Lulu Hatcher, who was 12 when her mother Lannie opened their family joint in 1942—Lannie’s BBQ in Selma; I also talked to Don McLemore, a barbecue champion in some of the biggest events in our country and the grandson of Big Bob Gibson, who invented the famous Alabama white barbecue sauce 91 years ago.

In the Carolinas, I talked with whole hog barbecue specialists Rodney Scott, of Scott’s in Hemingway, SC; Sam Jones, of Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ, whose family has been serving up barbecue in North Carolina since the mid-1800s; and James Beard award nominee Elliot Moss, who recently shifted his culinary focus to barbecue by opening his new joint, Buxton Hall BBQ in Asheville, NC.

In Kentucky I tracked down the notoriously cranky Oscar Hill, the 79-year-old oil man turned pitmaster who is famous for ‘cueing up double cut pork chops. In St. Louis it was Mike “Pappy” Emerson of Pappy’s Smokehouse who shared some of his knowledge with me. In Kansas City, brothers Joe and Mike Pearce of Slap’s (Squeal Like A Pig) gave me some of their time; as did 81 year old LC Richardson of LC’s BBQ.


While this list is long, it actually represents fewer than a third of the barbecue pros I was lucky enough to speak with while Chasing Barbecue. Before I share the questions I asked, I want to call out one more person. Without this man’s assistance there is no way my trip would have been as successful. So I want to say a huge thank you to Christopher Prieto, owner of Prime BBQ, author of Southern Living Ultimate Book of BBQ, Savory fan, and all around great guy. Not only did he go out of his way to contact his friends in barbecue to tell them about my trip and get me access, but he also hosted me for an unforgettable day of barbecue in North Carolina.

I asked every barbecue pro I met on this trip a few questions.

• In your own words, what defines your region’s barbecue?
• Are there any spices that are critical to your style of barbecue?
• What pro-tip would you give the backyard barbecue guy or gal to help them produce better barbecue at home?


Tootsie from Snow's BBQ
Tootsie from Snow's BBQ - Lexington, TX

From their answers, I gathered a lot of interesting and helpful information to share. Perhaps surprisingly, the spices being used across the different regions are not all that different. Texas stands out for its simplicity by predominately using only kosher salt and extra coarse black pepper to season its beef barbecue, but in robust quantities…really coating it on! In the rest of the regions it’s the usual spice suspects: salt, pepper, paprika, garlic, onion, mustard, cumin, celery, chiles and chili powders, etc. in varying combinations—nothing extraordinarily different. In Kansas City and Memphis they do use a fair amount of sugar in their rubs.

Where I found the striking differences in regional flavors were in the sauces. Interestingly, some barbecue purists I talked with said that barbecue sauces aren’t part of authentic barbecue. However, that wasn’t what I experienced. In fact, of the 88 joints I hit only one didn’t offer any sort of barbecue sauce. The rest not only had a sauce option but, more often than not, they offered their regionally specific sauce and two to three additional popular options that resonated with their customers.

Over the summer we’ll delve into the differences I did find, which will include info on those sauces, fuels used, and the types of proteins different regions specialize in. We’ll also share the pro-tips I gathered and interesting barbecue terminology I ran across along the way. Hopefully the collection of info we’ll be sharing will help you up your game; you might even intimidate your neighbors a little when they are drawn into your backyard by amazing aromas. So please stay tuned.

Comments on this Article

(guest), on April 26, 2016

absolutely fascinating, as an old cuer' from days past and early Memphis BBQ. I have come to the understanding that experiencing with rubs is as much barbecuing as woods/sauces/grilles. I really enjoyed my visit to your store, and would love to see something on line for ordering.

(guest), on April 26, 2016

Love this blog! What a fun road trip and a fabulous way to showcase what you learned. I'll stay tuned for more!

(guest), on April 26, 2016

What a Awesome road trip, I am a backyard weekender- smoker/cuer', would love to see more on the rubs/sauces maybe a Rub of the region, great job!

(guest), on April 26, 2016

Wow, that sounds like a great time! I would love to hear more about the sauce and spice variations, we love to barbecue and smoke and we are hitting the right season for it! Thanks for sharing your experience!

(guest), on April 26, 2016

I am glad that you tried both types of BBQ in North Carolina. Maybe the old questions can be answered. Why are there Two different styles and which one is the best.

(guest), on April 26, 2016

Wow what a trip. It would be fun to tag along....maybe take a bunch of us BBQ lovers. I noticed you talked about fly fishing for trout. You have to go to our friend's motel in Idlywyle Park, Oregon called the Dogwood Motel. It is right on the Umpqua River and has some of the best fly fishing in the world.

(guest), on April 27, 2016

WOW I want to take that trip. I can't wait to hear about the rubs, sauces and insights from all the pit masters you had the privilage to spend time with. I recentley ordered my own serious offset smoker/grill from lonestar grillz in willis texas, should be receving it in about 6 weeks. I live outside of NY city so there are not too many bbq joints around. With your help I may be the local pit master here. Keep me, us posted

(guest), on April 27, 2016


(guest), on April 27, 2016

I was so very proud to see both of the Carolinas represented. Excited to read more and see all the BBQ creations Savory comes up with.

(guest), on April 27, 2016

What a bucket list, chance of a lifetime trip. As a passionate BBQ guy from the Pacific Northwest, and not exposed to enough great BBQ. We have 1 great one here in Seattle. But my life just got better, my step son just got hired at the University of Memphis. Memphis in May here I come!!!!!!

(guest), on April 27, 2016

In for the long haul

(guest), on April 27, 2016

I think Myron Mixon has won the most titles. But I may be wrong

(guest), on April 27, 2016

We are from Michigan where smoking meat is just starting to catch on. Jenny and I did a similar but not nearly as extensive BBQ Trip this past winter. I also built a smoker over the winter. The best Brisket we ate on our trip was at Franklin BBQ in Austin, TX. Thanks for sharing your trip with us.

mikejohnston (registered user) on April 27, 2016

Wow! It's great to see that everyone is as excited about this "Roadtrip of a Limetime" as me. Stay tuned for the official kick-off of our Chasing BBQ summer - next week!
Johnny - You can absolutely order online, we try to make it as easy for you as possible. If you have any problems or questions you can call your local store (or our ecommerce at 888-677-3322 can get you all set up).
Sarah - Thanks for the support. It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Lenny - Great idea. We will be highlighting sauces and rubs in various regions and have even more in the works for later in the summer.
Barb - I think you'll really like some of the features we are working on that do showcase the spices in each region.
Michael - The Carolina leg of the trip was definitely interesting...don't ask me to pick favorites though!
Stephen - Don't worry, after spending the summer following our Chasing BBQ features, articles, tips, and tricks, you'll have a leg up on all of the NY bbq'ers.
Bunny - We will be reposting all of the stops I made (including many pics) here on our website. We're just about to kick this thing off, so stay tuned!
Tess - Me and my test kitchen manager are creating some great recipes from all of my notes, so good creations are forthcoming!
Scott - Definitely a bucket list item checked off here. Some cool stops in Memphis, enjoy! Jim - Glad to have you joining us. There are some serious bbq legends - regardless of official title counts. I learned a lot from all of the pitmasters out there though and am just excited to be able to share all the info!
Bruce & Jenny - Nice! Gotta love Franklin. What were your other highlights?

(guest), on April 28, 2016

Having been weaned on Que,hailing from a long line of Restaurateurs ,caterers and Que-"ers" from Memphis, I read your blog with interest. My father, Peter Monteverde Robinson owned the legendary "Montes" Drive -in, in Mphs.During its Heyday, 1950's-1960's,it was the local High School Spot.With the Catering,which included Elvis Presley's,the Beattles visit to Mphs,Motown Reviews and the Metropolitan Opera Cast Parties at the Auditorium in Downtown Mphs, my Dad was pretty well known for his Bar-b-Que and Fresh Southern Cooking. The Lemon Ice Box Pies with the Buttery Graham Cracker Crust and the Homemade Rolls & Fresh Veggies were daily offerings for Diners as well. Monte was known for his Charity as well having chaired the Food Committee for the 4th of July Picnic for St Peter's Orphanage for 15 to 20 yrs. I remember the big Concrete Blocks with Grates over them and the meats smoking ,that wonderful aroma wafting thru the air!! One last tribute to Monte: Elvis and Daddy raised the Money thru fund raisers called "Coffee Day" to help start the Easter Seals Camp for Crippled Children in East Tn. Well to bring this Memory Blog back to your topic, My Dad had a secret dry rub called "The Shake" and it included the spices you mentioned with lots of Paprika.Thank You for this interesting Blog of your Trip ! Did you hear of Johnny Vargas' Rendez-Vous, downtown Mphs.? I think it is still open . My Husband & I really like the Savory Spice Shop in St Pete and Paul is Wonderful !!!

(guest), on April 28, 2016

I did not see West Texas on your adventure trip!
My name is Junior Urias, owner and operator of Up In Smoke BBQ here in Midland Texas. My customers keep telling me that I have the best BBQ, compared to eastern and central Texas barbeque that they have eaten. Next time please try to make the trip to Midland and visit me! Oh and hopefully by the time you come I will have my BBQ shack built..
Junior Urias- BBQ Pit Master Texas Champion

(guest), on April 29, 2016

I am looking forward to your list of stops, we will be driving through Kansas City mid May and would like to find some good 'cue.

mikejohnston (registered user) on April 29, 2016

Madonna - What a great history and story!
Junior - Never enough time, man. I'll keep Chasing BBQ though and maybe I can get down to check out your place sometime!
Sue - Definitely some good 'cue in KC. Stay tuned.

(guest), on May 27, 2016

I'm soooooooo looking forward to the new recipes and spices/spice mixes. Having them offered by style or regional area would be great - especially for those of us not likely to take on a 7000 mile road trip????!
Keep this blog going! I want to read what's next on this Chase!

(guest), on June 01, 2016

Looking forward to reading about where you stopped. I'm from Oklahoma but live in Washington now and BBQ is what I miss the most. Not going to give up the fish and seafood scene to go back though. It's too damn hot there!

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