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The Best Barbecue Joints in All 50 States

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The key to great barbecue is to keep it simple: meat slow-smoked over wood. America’s barbecue scene is diverse, ranging from roadside shacks to full restaurants serving craft beer and brisket. Many barbecue joints create an admixture of styles from key cities like Memphis, Kansas City, and St. Louis, and states like Texas and the Carolinas. And even though the meat is the star of the show, what would a good barbecue meal be without a few solid sides? Here's our roundup of the best barbecue joint in every state.

1. ALABAMA // SAW’S BBQ

Location: Homewood, Alabama

Last year, Men’s Journal highlighted Alabama barbecue, including Saw’s. In fact, Saw’s has garnered a lot of acclaim since opening in 2009. Newcomer Saw’s Soul Kitchen opened in 2012, and American Idol winner Taylor Hicks co-owns a third location, Saw’s Juke Joint. They serve barbecue with Alabama’s signature white sauce—made with mayo—and a baked potato stuffed with pork, which the Alabama Tourism Department proclaimed as one of the top 100 dishes in the state to try before you die.

2. ALASKA // BLACK JAXX BBQ

Locations: Soldotna and Homer, Alaska

Their remote location in Alaska may lead some to think of exotic meats, like moose, but Black Jaxx's weirdest offering is bologna. Their menu is fairly minimal: spiced meat sandwiches like pulled pork and brisket and traditional sides, served out of a food truck. Because of Alaska’s weather, they’re only open during the temperate spring and summer months, which makes their offerings even more special.

3. ARIZONA // BIGFOOT BBQ

Location: Flagstaff, Arizona

As their website reads, “Nothin’ fancy, just thoughtful consideration.” That consideration entails a good combination of fire, smoke, and spice. Try the BBQ Tour (pulled pork, beef brisket, short rack of ribs) or the Bigfoot Steak and Cheese (brisket, onions, cheese, and peppers). They also have some things for meat-averse vegetarians: “Everybody is welcome at Bigfoot, and to prove it we got non-meat bbq.” Finally, an inclusive addition to the barbecue kingdom.

4. ARKANSAS // SMOKIN’ BUNS

Location: Jacksonville, Arkansas

Arkansas's Smokin' Buns's menu runs the gamut, from traditional meat to pig skins (potato skins with pulled pork) and piggie pie (Fritos topped with smoked beans and pork). Catfish, shrimp, and blackened salmon platters are also available, served with hush puppies, battered fries and coleslaw. An Arkansas Times review stated Smokin’ Buns has the best brisket in the state, and that some Texans even compared it to the famous barbecue found in Austin.

5. CALIFORNIA // COPPER TOP BBQ

Location: Big Pine, California

The Golden State’s barbecue claim to fame is the Central California Santa Maria-style of barbecue: tri-tip. The best is located inside a window-serve joint in Big Pine, nestled in a valley between the Sierra Nevada and White Mountains. Copper Top smokes tri-tip, St. Louis-style pork ribs, and chicken, and was named the best restaurant in the U.S. last year according to Yelp, so there must be something good in that mountain air.

6. COLORADO // GEORGIA BOYS BBQ COMPANY

Locations: Longmont and Frederick, Colorado

In order to smoke the highest quality of meats, Georgia Boys purchased a XLR 1600 Southern Pride Smoker—“the finest and most advanced wood-burning barbecue pit available,” reads the website. The restaurant’s divided into two locations: The Shack, in Longmont, focusing on a small barbecue menu, and The Smokehouse, in Frederick, which has a bigger menu, draft beers, and the Barnyard Challenge: six pounds of meat in a cast iron skillet. If you don’t finish it, you’ll be memorialized on their wall of shame.

7. CONNECTICUT // PIG RIG BBQ

Location: Wallingford, Connecticut

The Pig Rig uses an Ole’ Hickory Smoker and their motto is "Go Pig Or Go Home." They coat a secret dry rub on the meats, and offer Carolina pulled pork sandwiches, the Jamaican topped with homemade jerk bbq sauce, and the PigMac topped with smoked macaroni and cheese. If you're not in the mood for pork, they also have chicken thighs, baby back ribs, and beef brisket platters.

8. DELAWARE // BETHANY BLUES BBQ

Locations: Bethany Beach and Lewes, Delaware

Barbecue joints aren’t typically found within a stone's throw of the ocean, but you can walk there from Bethany’s. The home of what they call Delmarva Penisula barbeque, named for the restaurant's location, was lovingly formulated after researching famous smokehouses in Austin, Texas, New York, and ones all across Tennessee. Everything is wood smoked between four and 16 hours, but try their signature St. Louis ribs, all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch, and non-barbecue East Coast favorites like crab dip.

9. FLORIDA // AL’S FINGER LICKING GOOD BAR-B-QUE 

Location: Tampa, Florida

Menu items like Terrance's chopped beef, Aunt Nita's black-eyed peas, and of course Al's ribs give this family-run barbecue joint a personal touch. It all started as a concession stand in 2003, but now Al's is housed inside a bungalow in Tampa's historic Ybor City neighborhood. Al’s expertise centers on Tennessee-style dry rub and tomato-based sauce, good enough to be named one of Yelp’s top 10 best restaurants in Tampa Bay. Try Tia's TGIF Mac and Cheese, named after Al's daughter and served Fridays only.

10. GEORGIA // SOUTHERN SOUL BARBECUE

Location: St. Simons Island, Georgia

Another coastal location that would make more sense for a seafood restaurant, Southern Soul promises the aura of oak-smoked meats near a scenic locale. They smoke their pork, turkey, chicken, and brisket for at least 12 hours, and pit-fire their prime rib. Brunswick stew and Hoppin’ John—traditional southern dishes—are also presented on the menu.

11. HAWAII // UNCLE BOBO’S SMOKED BBQ 

Location: Kaaawa, Oahu, Hawaii

Oahu certainly knows its ‘cue. Using a combination of hickory and tropical woods, at Uncle Bobo's they smoke their meats with a “low and slow” method. The menu covers everything from pork shoulder to barbecued Sloppy Joes, and serves Redneck rice (with bacon drippings) and other Hawaiian favorites such as shaved ice and a healthy acai bowl.

12. IDAHO // BBQ4LIFE

Location: Boise, Idaho

Opening a part barbecue and part vegan restaurant might seem contradictory, but there’s something for every dietary need here. Vegans and vegetarians can enjoy the vegan bread pudding, smoked vegan potato salad or vegaloaf, while carnivores happily dine on pecan wood smoked sausage sandwiches, a Big Foot sandwich (pulled pork, mac and cheese, barbecue sauce on Hawaiian bread), and tri-tip.

13. ILLINOIS // BLACK DOG SMOKE AND ALE HOUSE

Locations: Urbana and Champaign, Illinois 

The first location opened in Urbana in 2009, and a second location, in Champaign, opened last year. Using a custom-made smoker, Black Dog cooks Polish sausages, free-range chickens, burgers, and spare ribs. They also make a line of sauces, including Georgia Peach (sweet), a hot mustard sauce, and a habanero sauce. To wash the meat and all the spiciness down, several craft beers are on draft.

14. INDIANA // RIP’S FAMILY BBQ

Location: Connersville, Indiana

Rip’s mainly offers Memphis-style barbecue, but Texas and Carolina can also be enjoyed. They use apple and hickory woods to smoke the meats listed on their vast menu, consisting of pork nachos, salads topped with meat, pork egg rolls served with barbecue sauce, pork-stuffed burritos, a smoked turkey sub, and the Beale Street (pulled pork topped with coleslaw).

15. IOWA // MOSLEY’S BARBECUE AND PROVISIONS

Location: Iowa City, Iowa

Mosley’s has only been open for a year, but their Carolina-style barbecue has made a great dent in Iowa’s barbecue scene. Their bone-in pork butt (which is actually a shoulder) is pit-smoked for 12 hours, hand pulled, and topped with a couple of housemade sauces. Their red rib sauce isn’t the sticky variety, and their Gold Standard sauce is “sweet, with a kick.” They also offer St. Louis-style ribs, chicken, various sides like their jar of bacon (yes, a full $4.50 jar of hickory smoked bacon), and pitchers of southern sangria and craft cocktails.

16. KANSAS // JOE’S KANSAS CITY BAR-B-QUE

Locations: Kansas City, Leawood, and Olathe, Kansas

Though Kansas has much barbecue to offer, Joe’s Kansas City is the hands-down favorite—all the time. They have four locations throughout the state, including the original location (formerly known as Oklahoma Joe's), established in 1996 at a former gas station, and a private event space called The 180 Room. Joe’s has become such a brand, you can get it shipped to you. Their restaurants serve championship-winning barbecue, such as beef brisket, smoked ham, sandwiches like the Z-Man (brisket, provolone cheese, onion rings), and a whole section of “just ribs.”

17. KENTUCKY // RED STATE BBQ

Location: Lexington, Kentucky

A little known fact: Kentucky has its own style of barbecue, and it’s quite different in the Bluegrass state. Though many Kentuckians enjoy traditional barbecue like smoked brisket and sausage, some prefer specialty food like mutton (sheep) and the state's official dish, burgoo (meat stew). At Red State, you'll find the more traditional version of smoked chicken, pork, and sausage served with a selection of domestic and craft beers. Try the BBQ Parfait: Your choice of meat and two sides served in a clear Solo cup for $5.

18. LOUISIANA // BIG MIKE’S BBQ

Location: Houma, Louisiana

New Orleans’s The Joint frequently gets named the Best BBQ in Louisiana, but an hour outside of NOLA in Houma, the family-owned Big Mike’s challenges that reign. Their varied menu offers smoked brisket, grilled boudin, crawfish, ribs, burgers, and Creole rice. Try the Big Bertha Que for your next large gathering: three whole chickens, three pounds of sausage, three pounds of ribs, three pounds of brisket, and three pounds of pork—all of which should feed around 50 people.

19. MAINE // SMOKIN’ GOOD BBQ

Location: Bethel, Maine

Using an orange trailer, Smokin’ Good makes “real pit bbq.” The menu includes hot chili, North Carolina pulled pork, Texas beef brisket, hot links, and Dave’s Double Wide Family combo, with full slabs of ribs and a whole chicken. Coming in a close second is Portland’s Elsmere BBQ, which has grass-fed beef, seafood sandwiches, and oysters on their menu.

20. MARYLAND // THE BBQ JOINT

Locations: Easton and Pasadena, Maryland; Washington D.C.

Singling out the best barbecue in the Maryland/D.C. area is tough, especially with choices like Andy Nelson’s Barbecue, Mission BBQ, and Big Bad Wolf’s BBQ in the area. But former-chef-turned-pitmaster Andrew Evans keeps it simple at his four BBQ Joint locations in Maryland and D.C. They cook St. Louis ribs and whole barbecued chickens, and serve Texas cheesesteak, skillet cookies, sloppy Joe sliders, and pork rinds, and have an extensive list of craft beers and cocktails to boot.

21. MASSACHUSETTS // BLACKSTRAP BBQ

Location: Winthrop, Massachusetts

Since their opening in 2010, Blackstrap—named for a type of molasses used to make their barbecue sauces—has made grit fries, hand-cut onion rings, smoked chicken, burnt ends, Texas brisket, catfish, and habanero-watermelon slushies in a laid back and playful atmosphere. Blackstrap has daily specials and sometimes even hosts themed nights like a Golden Girls screening party.

22. MICHIGAN // SADDLEBACK BBQ

Location: Lansing, Michigan

A lot of good barbecue thrives in Michigan, but only one place is named after the British saddleback pig. Saddleback—which opened last year in REO Town—smokes ribs, brisket, chicken, and pork shoulder, and they’re so dedicated to their craft they have an overnight shift to monitor the smoking. They sell boxed lunches, brisket rib chili, and their Wednesday special is "Wu-Tang Wings."

23. MINNESOTA // SCOTT JA-MAMA’S

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota

The menu is so tiny, you could conceivably try everything on the menu at least once, but Scott Ja-Mama's offers full-, half-, and quarter-racks of ribs, half and quarter chickens, steak sandwiches, and pork sandwiches. Their famous twice-baked potato and slaw comes with every platter, and you can check out the eclectic memorabilia on the walls while you wait.

24. MISSISSIPPI // LEATHA’S BAR-B-QUE INN

Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Though Leatha died in 2013 at age 90, her restaurant lives on. She started the Inn in 1976, and wrote a book about her rise from poverty to becoming the “barbecue queen” of Mississippi. The menu consists of chicken, pork and beef ribs, wood-grilled steaks, and a “secret recipe” slaw. Apparently quarterback legend (and local) Brett Favre is a regular.

25. MISSOURI // BOGART’S SMOKEHOUSE

Location: St. Louis, Missouri

Barbecue chains reign in Missouri (e.g. Jack Stack), but Bogart’s only has one location and a minimal menu. That gives the staff more time to focus on the meats: ribs, pulled pork, tri-tip, burnt ends, and sides like deviled egg potato salad, and barbecued pork skins. Their VooDoo sauce hits an eight on a hot scale, but they also feature more mild sauces, like their Pineapple Express. So far their attention to detail has paid off—Yelp named them one of the top 100 restaurants in the U.S.

26. MONTANA // THE NOTORIOUS P.I.G.

Location: Missoula, Montana

We’re not just picking this place because of its punny name—it is a great name, though—but because they feature a tour of the best kinds of barbecue: Memphis-style ribs, Kansas City burnt ends, Texas-style brisket, tri-tip sirloin, and, a curveball: New York pastrami.

27. NEBRASKA // LIPPY’S BBQ

Location: Malcolm, Nebraska

Lippy’s specializes in “naked barbecue,” which means they don’t add any sauce to their meats, instead letting the high-quality meat speak for itself. Their menu includes a beef brisket sandwich, Memphis-style pulled pork, brisket fajitas, and a Mix-Up Sandwich Meal: brisket, pulled pork, and smoked chicken.

28. NEVADA // JOHN MULL’S MEATS AND ROAD KILL GRILL

Location: Las Vegas, Nevada

The location started as John Mull’s Meats and Deer Processing, until third generation owner Chuck Frommer took over the business in 1981. Deer and other meats are no longer slaughtered on the premises, and the space has evolved into a catering company, a meat market, and a small picnic-style lunch and dinner spot. You can pick up pork offal and goat meat by the pound from the market, or you can have them prepare the food for you: half-chicken dinners, five-bone rib dinners, hot links, mac and cheese, and cobbler.

29. NEW HAMPSHIRE // GOODY COLE’S SMOKEHOUSE & CATERING

Location: Brentwood, New Hampshire

The husband and wife team behind Goody Cole’s use an Oyler Barbecue Pit—which can hold up to 1200 pounds of meat—to hickory-smoke their meats for 12 hours. One of the owners hails from Texas, so she knows a thing or two about smoking barbecue well. The results are mouth-watering turkey, kielbasa, beef brisket, and a "world famous" St. Louis-style pork rib, dry seasoned with their own secret recipe.

30. NEW JERSEY // HENRI’S HOTTS BARBEQUE

Location: Hammonton, New Jersey

As if one plate of barbecue wasn’t filling enough, now you have the option of endlessly stuffing your face with pulled pork, black-eyed peas, ribs, whipped yams, and meatloaf at Henri's all-you-can-eat weekend buffet (or, thankfully, you can also opt to take your buffet to go). During the week, Henri’s serves a regular menu with many of the same items, including platters, wings, sandwiches, and burgers, which are just part of the reason Henri's has won the Best BBQ in South Jersey title for five years in a row.

31. NEW MEXICO // WATSON’S BBQ

Location: Tucumcari, New Mexico

Tucumcari Ranch Supply is home to a general store that sells livestock feed and sundries, but it’s also where owners Jimmy and Stella Watson smoke meats for their restaurant, Watson’s. They have Frito pie, a Bucky Special (brisket and sausage), a turkey leg plate, and a New Mexico green chili stew, as well as a full (not barbecued) donut menu.

32. NEW YORK // BIG W’S ROADSIDE BAR-B-QUE

Location: Wingdale, New York

New York City may have tons of barbecue options, but take a 90-minute drive outside the city and visit Big W’s in Wingdale. The “W” stands for owner/pitboss Warren Norstein, who started his barbecue adventure in 2003, on the side of Route 22. His chickens are smoked over wood for six hours, hence the name “slow chicken.” Besides poultry, their menu offers sandwiches and spare ribs in portions “truly sensible,” “sensible,” and “roadside.” If you’re feeding a lot of people, choose the For The Table meal: one whole rack of ribs, whole chicken, beef brisket, pulled pork, and six sides for $99.

33. NORTH CAROLINA // HIGH COTTON

Location: Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge wins a lot of barbecue brackets, but North Carolina has other barbecue joints. Enter the Outer Banks’ High Cotton, which serves up family-sized portions of eastern North Carolina 'cue. The hand-chopped pork is smoked on hickory for 12 hours, and they also make mean southern fried chicken, chocolate pecan Chess pie, hushpuppies, and Texas brisket.

34. NORTH DAKOTA // SPITFIRE BAR AND GRILL

Location: West Fargo, North Dakota

In 2011, Spitfire won first place for chicken in the Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbeque. The chicken is spitfired, their ribs are pit-smoked, and their burgers, fish, and steaks are wood-fired.

35. OHIO // ELI’S BBQ

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio

In 2012, Elias Leisring started Eli’s in a tent, selling his sandwiches and meat platters at Cincinnati’s Findlay Market. He has since upgraded to two brick-and-mortar locations, including one at Findlay. Last year, Yelp named Eli’s one of the top 100 places to eat in the U.S.—the only Ohio restaurant on the list. For a mere $6, you can get a brisket sandwich, or for a couple of dollars more, a full slab of ribs, rib tips, and smoked all-beef franks. Besides the meats, their jalapeño cheddar grits are also tasty.

36. OKLAHOMA // BURN CO. BARBEQUE

Location: Tulsa, Oklahoma

Burn Co. opened in 2011, and they smoke meat (baby back ribs, drumsticks, bologna) and sausages (Polish, pork, venison, bratwurst), and serve sides of smoky baked beans, hand cut coleslaw, and grilled potato salad. Some of their meats are available to take home, so you can grill them up on your own, but the restaurant goes through about 40 gallons of barbecue sauce and 125 pounds of rub each week. Their food is so good that Alton Brown recently said it was the “best barbecue we’ve had on the road so far.”

37. OREGON // BO-MACK’S BBQ EXPRESS

Location: Albany, Oregon

Podnah's Pit is a revered place in Oregon and Portland, but Bo-Mack’s is a true family affair. Owned and operated by a nine-member family, Bo-Mack’s serves complimentary cornbread with fresh whipped honey butter during meals, which are based around dry-rubbed meats smoked for 14-18 hours, as well as a selection of sides like creamy garlic mashed potatoes. They make their own sauces, too, from Sweet and Sassy to the Ghost Pepper-spiced Hooligan.

38. PENNSYLVANIA // HARVEY’S MAIN STREET BBQ

Location: Mount Joy, Pennsylvania

Harvey Schademan and his wife got their start in the barbecue business 30 years ago, selling half chickens on the side of the road. Since then, Harvey has won several barbecue competitions, which he attributes to his ribs being less sugary than typical Kansas City-style ribs. The large menu includes gumbo, cherry-smoked pulled pork, smoked brisket nachos, wild boar, and burgers, and after a 2014 fire destroyed their original building, Harvey's reopened last year with more than twice the seating capacity. Plenty of room to fill up on their "flavory and savory" plates.

39. RHODE ISLAND // BECKY’S BBQ

Location: Middletown, Rhode Island

At Becky’s, they barbecue their pork and beef for 18 hours, and then hand-pull each cut. Since 1998, they’ve offered family style meals, sandwiches, platters, sides like Becky’s three-bean bake, and hickory-smoked ribs. Unfortunately, Becky Bowden, the restaurant's namesake founder, passed away, but her husband, Bob Bringhurst, carries on with their friendly barbecue legacy.

40. SOUTH CAROLINA // SWEATMAN’S BAR-B-QUE

Location: Holly Hill, South Carolina

You will have to drive an hour from Charleston to Holly Hill to find the Sweatman's barbecue place, located inside a an old farmhouse. For 40 years, Sweatman's has served plates with meats, hash, and slaw, and an all-you-can-eat plate of "ribs and skins." Plus, you can get banana pudding for less than a buck. As one Eater commenter wrote, “Any votes other than Sweatman’s have never made the drive.”

41. SOUTH DAKOTA // BIG RIG BBQ

Location: Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Big Rig takes a naked, "sauce optional" approach to barbecue. “Try it first without it, and if you need it, add it,” reads their website. Located in front of a Home Depot, everything Big Rig does has a no-frills approach to cooking; they joke that they don't even own a can opener. But the product is superb, which co-owner Bob Brenner's recent Food Falls Tourney win can attest to.

42. TENNESSEE // PEG LEG PORKER

Location: Nashville, Tennessee

In the Volunteer State, swine is king. Peg Leg pitmaster Carey Bringle opened his restaurant in 2013 (the eatery's name is a good-natured nod to the bone cancer that claimed his right leg as a teenager), and fare is as southern as it gets. Favorites like pimento cheese, smoked green beans, barbecued pulled pork, and pork rinds are served alongside Kool-Aid pickles and "Memphis sushi" (a sausage and cheese platter with saltines). They also sell a variety of bourbon, including their own batch called Peg Leg Porker Tennessee Straight Bourbon.

43. TEXAS // THE SALT LICK BBQ

Locations: Driftwood and Round Rock, Texas

It’s not hard to find good barbecue in the great state of Texas, but you’d be hard-pressed to find something like Salt Lick. The original location in Driftwood, Texas started smoking their 'cue in 1967, and the brand's popularity grew from there (there are more than 10,000 reviews on its Facebook page, a testament to the widespread appeal). Also located in Round Rock, the two locations serve brisket, a vegetable plate, samplers, turkey, and homemade pecan pie. And, if you're in the mood for something truly Texas-sized, you can order a gallon—yes, a full gallon—of their house barbecue sauce.

44. UTAH // BAM BAM'S BBQ

Location: Orem, Utah

Owner Cameron “Bam Bam” Treu started competing in the Kansas City Barbecue Society contest circuit, and in 2012 he won grand champion at the Best Dam BBQ Challenge. At his namesake restaurant—which opened in 2013—Bam Bam smokes Central Texas-style meats like chopped beef, sausage links, and turkey for 14 hours. Pick a meat and pile it on their BBQ Swachos (their barbecue-covered nachos).

45. VERMONT // BIG FATTY’S BBQ

Location: White River Junction, Vermont

At Big Fatty’s New England barbecue joint they serve brined chicken wings, beef brisket, five pounds of whole slab ribs, and Texas brisket. And here, being a "Big Fatty" is an accomplishment: To complete the Big Fatty’s Challenge, you must eat four pounds worth of pulled pork and fries on a bun in under an hour.

46. VIRGINIA // BBQ EXCHANGE

Location: Gordonsville, Virginia

Pork belly and smoked tofu aren’t exactly traditional components on a barbecue menu, but the BBQ Exchange takes a unique approach to classic barbecue fare. Their sauces consist of Virginia-style smoky bacon, sweet Kansas City-style, and hog fire made with hot peppers. As a reminder of their southern roots, the Exchange also has fried green tomatoes, collared greens, and Brunswick stew on the menu.

47. WASHINGTON // CAMPFIRE BBQ

Location: Seattle, Washington

Campfire's well-reviewed brisket and Memphis-style ribs are made with locally sourced meat that's organic and sustainable. The sauces—bourbon, beer, and mustard based—use ingredients from local distilleries and brewers. Paying tribute to their Pacific Northwest location, Campfire also offers agave-glazed salmon, barbecued eggplant, and sometimes wild game like elk.

48. WEST VIRGINIA // DEM 2 BROTHERS & A GRILL

Location: Charleston, West Virginia

Only one brother runs the joint—Adrian “Bay” Wright—but he is the youngest of 10 kids. As Wright says on the website, the eatery is “located on the best-smelling corner in Charleston.” Wright visited his hometown of Charleston and cooked roadside ribs for a weekend, and with some coercion from his family, decided to stay indefinitely and open the place. The menu features Big Bay’s ribs, fish, chicken, sweet potato casserole, wings, and on Soul Food Sundays, Wright offers ox tail, collard greens, and fried chicken.

49. WISCONSIN // LD’S BBQ

Location: East Troy, Wisconsin

LD’s is known for their sandwiches, which are piled high in a mix-and-match style of multiple meats. The Shane is made with half chicken and half brisket, the Z-Drake adds pulled pork to the Shane, and the Hocking contains smoked sausage and pulled pork. If meatloaf is your thing, come Wednesdays when they sell it as a special.

50. WYOMING // POKEY’S BBQ & SMOKEHOUSE

Location: Gillette, Wyoming

For the folks at Pokey’s, their “dinner” menu is “lunch for you cityfolks,” and "supper" [PDF] is served evenings Tuesday through Sunday. Their beef brisket, kielbasa, smoked pork chops, steaks, shrimp, and samplers come with a trip to their salad bar, two sides, and cheesy biscuits. And the sides—tater salad, ale-battered onion rings, fried green tomatoes—are just as crucial as the meats. So what separates Pokey’s from the rest of the barbecue joints in town? Their “wild thang" [PDF] menu: ostrich, gator tail, kangaroo, buffalo skewers, and—for the most adventurous of eaters—python.

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25 Things You Didn't Know About Turkeys
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Most of us probably associate turkey with a sumptuous Thanksgiving spread, but there’s a lot more to the big bird than how delicious it is alongside your grandma’s famous cranberry sauce. Here are a few bits of knowledge you can drop over the dinner table—when you’re not fighting with your family over white meat or dark meat, that is.

1. THE NORTH AMERICAN WILD TURKEY POPULATION WAS ALMOST WIPED OUT.

Wild turkey
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Wild turkeys once roamed the continent en masse, but by the early 20th century, the entire U.S. population had been whittled down to a mere 30,000 due to hunting and the destruction of their woodland habitats. In the 1940s, many of the remaining birds were relocated to parts of the U.S. with recovering woodlands so the turkeys could repopulate. Despite these efforts, by 1973, there were still just 1.5 million wild turkeys in North America. Today, that number is up to about 6 million.

2. TURKEY APPENDAGES ARE LIKE MOOD RINGS.

Wild turkey
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The dangly appendage that hangs from the turkey’s forehead to the beak is called a snood. The piece that hangs from the chin is the wattle. These fleshy flaps can change color according to the turkey’s physical and mental health—when a male turkey (called a tom, of course) is trying to attract a mate, the snood and wattle turn bright red. If the turkey is scared, the appendages take on a blue tint. And if the turkey is ailing, they become very pale.

3. TURKEYS CAN FLY.

Wild turkey in flight
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Well, domestic turkeys that are bred to be your Thanksgiving centerpiece can’t. They’re too heavy. But wild turkeys can, reportedly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour. Though they don’t go very far—usually less than 100 yards—wild turkeys are among the five largest flying birds in the world. They’re in good company: Others on the list include the swan and the albatross.

4. THEY CAN ALSO SWIM.

Wild turkey drinking water
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Turkeys don’t swim often, it seems, but they can, by tucking their wings in, spreading their tails, and kicking. In 1831, John James Audubon wrote, “I have been told by a friend that a person residing in Philadelphia had a hearty laugh on hearing that I had described the Wild Turkey as swimming for some distance, when it had accidentally fallen into the water. But be assured, kind reader, almost every species of land-bird is capable of swimming on such occasions, and you may easily satisfy yourself as to the accuracy of my statement by throwing a Turkey, a Common Fowl, or any other bird into the water.”

5. TURKEY POOP CAN TELL YOU A LOT.

A handler picking up turkey poop at the White House Turkey Pardon in 2013.

The next time you happen across turkey poop—which happens all the time, we know—take a closer look at it. If the droppings are shaped like a “J,” they were left there by a male turkey. Spiral-shaped poo? The culprit is female.

The citizens of Pilot Rock, Oregon, probably don’t much care about the shape of the stuff, but more about the quantity of it. Earlier this year, Pilot Rock turned to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for help combating a flock of 50 to 70 wild turkeys that would periodically invade the town, destroy gardens, perch in trees, and poop on pickup trucks. The ODFW offered several solutions, but as far as we know the turkeys still rule the roost at Pilot Rock.

6. TURKEY PROBABLY WASN'T ON THE PILGRIMS' MENU.

A recreation of the Pilgrims' first settlement
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Thanks to historical records, we know for sure that the Wampanoag brought deer, and the English brought fowl—likely ducks and geese.

7. BEN FRANKLIN DIDN'T REALLY WANT THE TURKEY TO BE OUR NATIONAL BIRD.

A drawing of Ben Franklin.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Handout

You may have heard that at least one of our Founding Fathers lobbied hard to make the turkey our national symbol instead of the noble bald eagle. That’s not quite true, but in a letter to his daughter, he did expound on the character of each, which may be where the rumor got started:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this injustice, he is never in good case but like those among men who live by sharping & robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district. He is therefore by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our country…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

8. ANOTHER TURKEY FAN: ALEXANDER HAMILTON.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Yep, A. Ham liked turkey. In fact, he thought eating turkey was practically a god-given right, and once remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day."

9. TEDDY ROOSEVELT BELIEVED THE BIRDS WERE CUNNING PREY.

Teddy Roosevelt on a hunting trip in Africa.
Getty / Hulton Archive / Stringer

Ol’ TR may have been accustomed to hunting big game, but wild turkeys held a special place in his heart. He believed they were every bit as challenging to hunt as deer. In his 1893 book Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and the Wilderness Hunter, he wrote, “The wild turkey really deserves a place beside the deer; to kill a wary old gobbler with the small-bore rifle, by fair still-hunting, is a triumph for the best sportsman.”

10. WILD TURKEYS HAVE BETTER VISION THAN YOU DO.

Close up of wild turkey's head
iStock

Their fantastic vision is probably one reason Teddy Roosevelt found turkeys such a challenge to hunt. They can detect motion from many yards away, have vision three times greater than 20/20, and have peripheral vision of about 270 degrees. Ours, comparatively, is only 180. And although turkeys can’t see in 3D, they can see UVA light, which helps them better identify predators, prey, mates, and food.

11. THE TOP TURKEY-PRODUCING STATE MAY SURPRISE YOU.

Domesticated turkeys on a farm
iStock

You may know Minnesota for producing Prince, the Mall of America, and Target. But we also have the Land of 10,000 Lakes to thank for our Thanksgiving turkeys. According to the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, approximately 46-48 million turkeys are produced in Minnesota every year. In fact, it’s where the turkey that receives a presidential pardon hails from every year. Speaking of which ...

12. THE PRESIDENTIAL TURKEY PARDON MAY DATE BACK TO ABE LINCOLN.

President Barack Obama pardons a turkey in 2011.
Getty / Mark Wilson / Staff

Officially, the tradition of the sitting president of the United States pardoning his Thanksgiving turkey dates back to John F. Kennedy, who decided to let his gift from the National Turkey Federation off the hook. But he wasn't the first president to let a turkey go free: When Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad befriended one of the birds intended for Christmas dinner in 1863, kind-hearted Abe granted it a stay of execution.

13. THE FIRST TV DINNER MEAL: THANKSGIVING LEFTOVERS

Thanksgiving TV dinner
iStock

In 1953, Swanson ended up with 10 train cars full of frozen turkeys—260 tons of them—when an overzealous buyer ordered too many turkeys for the holidays. Salesman Gerry Thomas solved the problem by ordering 5,000 aluminum trays and setting up an assembly line of workers to scoop dressing, peas, and sweet potatoes into the compartments. Slices of turkey rounded out the meal, which Swanson sold for 98 cents. The idea was a hit: The following year, 10 million turkey TV dinners were sold.

14. NATIONAL TURKEY LOVERS’ MONTH ISN’T WHEN YOU THINK.

Grilled meats on a silver tray
iStock

Everyone eats turkey in November and December, so there’s not a lot of need for extra poultry promotion during those months. If you want to celebrate National Turkey Lovers’ Month, you’ll have to do it in June with some turkey brats and burgers on the grill.

15. THE TURKEY YOU’LL BE EATING IS PROBABLY ABOUT 18 WEEKS OLD.

Roasted turkey on a platter
iStock

That’s how long it typically takes the birds to grow to maturity, which is when they’re usually slaughtered.

16. THERE WAS ALMOST A TURKEY SIDEKICK IN POCAHONTAS.

Loren Javier via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

At one point, Disney thought Pocahontas needed a little comic relief, so they hired John Candy to voice a wisecracking woodland fowl named Red Feather. Sadly, Candy passed away while the logistics were being worked out, so animators dropped the turkey entirely and opted for a clever raccoon named Meeko.

17. NOT ALL TURKEYS GOBBLE.

Close up shot of a wild turkey
iStock

If you hear a turkey making the distinctive noise we all associate with them, then you’re hearing a male communicating with his lady friends up to a mile away. Females make a clicking sound instead of a gobble.

18. IF YOU DON’T EAT TURKEY AT THANKSGIVING, YOU’RE IN THE MINORITY.

A black and white photo of a family gathering around the table as the mother brings in a turkey.
Getty / Evans / Stringer

According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans eat turkey at Thanksgiving.

19. TURKEY CRAVINGS CAUSED A SPIKE IN KFC SALES IN JAPAN.

A large Kentucky Fried Chicken sign
iStock

When KFC opened its first stores in Japan in the 1970s, the company was surprised to find that sales soared during the holidays. The phenomenon stymied executives since most of Japan celebrates neither Thanksgiving nor Christmas. It was later discovered that foreigners craving holiday turkey had decided that KFC’s chicken was the next best thing. After the company figured this out, they played up the association with their “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” campaign—“Kentucky for Christmas.” It worked on tourists and locals alike, and today, Christmas Eve is still the highest-selling day for KFC Japan.

20. THERE IS PROPER TURKEY TERMINOLOGY.

A flock of turkeys on a farm with one staring directly into the camera.
Getty / Cate Gillon / Staff

You probably know that a group of turkeys is a flock, but they can also properly be called a “rafter.” And should you want to call baby turkeys something a little more precise, you can call them “poults.”

21. THE MAYA USED TURKEYS AS SACRIFICIAL OFFERINGS.

A Maya tripod plate featuring a bird
Los Angeles County Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Archaeologists have found vases dating from 250-800 CE that have turkeys depicted on them. According to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee art historian Andrea Stone, "turkeys were quintessential animals for feasting and for sacrificial offerings." The Maya even crafted tamales shaped like the birds.

22. DURING THE ‘70S, YOU COULD CALL JULIA CHILD FOR TURKEY ADVICE ON THANKSGIVING.

Julia Child in her kitchen in 1978
Lynn Gilbert via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Even when she was at peak popularity, the famous chef refused to remove her phone number from public listings. According to friends, complete strangers would call Child on Thanksgiving to ask for advice on cooking the perfect turkey. Julia always answered the phone, and typically told callers whatever they needed to hear to get them to relax and enjoy the holiday. She even told some amateur cooks that turkey was best served cold anyway.

23. BIG BIRD IS A TURKEY.

Big Bird and Elmo at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Getty / Matthew Peyton / Stringer

Well, according to Sesame Street, he’s actually a canary—but his plumage makes him a turkey. The good people at American Plume & Fancy Feather provide Sesame Street with several thousand turkey feathers per costume to make sure Big Bird looks soft and fluffy.

24. THE BIRD IS NAMED AFTER THE COUNTRY.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey
iStock

But the whole thing was a mistake. Centuries ago, the English began to import a rather tasty bird, now known as a helmeted guinea fowl, from Madagascar. But they didn’t know it was from Africa. Because it was imported to Europe from merchants in Turkey, the English believed the birds were also Turkish.

Later, when the Spanish arrived in the New World, they discovered Meleagris gallopavo—the wild turkey. It was delicious, so they started importing it back to Europe. Europeans thought it tasted like the “turkey” guinea fowl they had been enjoying, so they called it the same thing.

25. WHAT, EXACTLY, IS DARK MEAT?

Roasted turkey legs on a piece of butcher paper
iStock

It’s just a different type of muscle than white meat. White meat is the result of glycogen, which doesn't need much oxygen from the blood because the muscles it fuels only require short bursts of energy. Dark meat, however, is found on wings, thighs, and drumsticks—muscles that are used for long periods of time and require more sustainable energy. It’s made dark by the proteins that convert fat into energy.

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The White House Cook Book
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10 Odd Historical Hints for Preparing a Turkey
The White House Cook Book
The White House Cook Book

While making a full Thanksgiving spread today takes time, effort, and stress, it's a piece of cake compared to what people had to deal with before modern conveniences. Here are ten tips for cooking turkey the 18th- and 19th-century way that might seem a little strange today.

1. BURN THE HAIRS AND BREAK THE BREAST BONE.

Before the advent of the modern processed turkey—plucked clean, gutted, and rinsed, with gizzards and neck in a handy bag ready for making gravy—preparing the Thanksgiving turkey was not for the faint of heart. The Cook's Own Book by Mrs. N. K. M. Lee, published in 1832, gives a quick rundown of the steps:

To prepare a turkey for dressing, every plug is carefully picked out; and in drawing turkeys and fowls, care must be taken not to break the gall bag, nor the gut which joins the gizzard, as it is impossible to remove the bitterness of the one, or the grittiness of the other. The hairs are singed off with white paper; the leg-bone is broken close to the foot, and the sinews drawn out—a cloth is then put over the breast, and the bone flattened with a rolling-pin, the liver and gizzard, made delicately clean, are fastened into each pinion.

The breast bone was broken to give the turkey a rounder, fatter appearance. Today selective breeding has taken care of that, with modern birds weighing up to twice as much as the birds Lee would have worked with, giving them that desirable, Rubenesque form even before they make it to our kitchens.

2. USE BAKING SODA TO COUNTER BITTER GALL AND RIPE INTESTINE.

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The bitterness of gall, so ineradicable in 1832, was treatable by the time Marion Harland's Common Sense in the Household was published in 1884. The cure was the same thing that fixes pretty much every other household ill: a teaspoon of baking soda. Added to the next-to-last water rinse of the turkey cavity, baking soda could defunk even gall taint. The manufacturers who trademarked the Arm & Hammer line began selling bicarbonate of soda in 1846, so its deodorant properties were well-known four decades later.

Mind you, Marion Harland was appalled that such a step should even be necessary: 

There is no direr disgrace to our Northern markets than the practice of sending whole dead fowls to market. I have bought such from responsible poultry dealers, and found them uneatable, from having remained undrawn until the flavor of the craw and intestines had impregnated the whole body. [...] " But don't you know it actually poisons a fowl to lie so long undressed?" once exclaimed a Southern lady to me. "In our markets they are offered for sale ready picked and drawn, with the giblets—also cleaned—tucked under their wings."

3. AND 4. TWO HEART-BUSTING WAYS TO STUFF A TURKEY.

The White House Cook Book

Amelia Simmons' American Cookery, first published in 1796, was the first cookbook to embrace American cuisine as separate from British, with an emphasis on indigenous ingredients like turkey, corn, squash, and potatoes. It was so popular it was reprinted for 30 years under its own name and widely plagiarized under other names.

Ms. Simmons has two recommended turkey stuffings, the main difference being the saturated fat and the meat ingredient. No salted pork handy? Beef suet will do the trick.

Option 1: "Grate a wheat loaf, one quarter of a pound butter, one quarter of a pound salt pork, finely chopped, 2 eggs, a little sweet marjoram, summer savory, parsley and sage, pepper and salt (if the pork be not sufficient,) fill the bird and sew up."

Option 2: "One pound soft wheat bread, 3 ounces beef suet, 3 eggs, a little sweet thyme, sweet marjoram, pepper and salt, and some add a gill of wine; fill the bird therewith and sew up."

A gill is a quarter of a pint, which leaves a lot of wine left in the bottle for the cook who is most certainly going to need it. 

5. TURKEY STUFFING THE FORCEMEAT WAY.

iStock

Forcemeat is fat, meat, and seasonings ground together into a smooth emulsion. Nowadays we see it in the form of pâté, mousselines, liverwurst, sausages, Spam, Spam, hot dogs, and Spam. Susannah Carter tells us in the 1803 edition of The Frugal Housewife how to stuff a turkey with forcemeat:

A turkey when roasted, is generally stuffed in the craw with forc'd-meat, or the following stuffing: Take a pound of veal, as much grated bread, half a pound of suet cut and beat very fine, a little parsley, with a small matter of thyme, or savory, two cloves, half a nutmeg grated, a tea-spoonful of shred lemon-peel, a little pepper and salt, and the yolks of two eggs.

6. GIVE THE TURKEY AN ENGLISH FLAIR WITH "BREAD SAUCE IN A SAUCE TUREEN."

iStock

According to Mrs. Lee in The Cook's Own Book, if you're going with a forcemeat stuffing, then you must serve the turkey with a classic English delicacy, "bread sauce in a sauce tureen."

Put a small tea-cupful of bread crumbs into a stewpan, pour on it as much milk as it will soak up, and a little more; or instead of the milk, take the giblets, head, neck, and legs, &c. of the poultry, &c. and stew them, and moisten the bread with this liquor; put it on the fire with a middling-sized onion, and a dozen berries of pepper or allspice, or a little mace; let it boil, then stir it well, and let it simmer till it is quite stiff, and then put to it about two table-spoonfuls of cream or melted butter, or a little good broth; take out the onion and pepper, and it is ready.

7. STUFF IT WITH MASHED POTATOES.

iStock

If you're not into suet, forcemeat, or salt pork, you could always "boil and mash 3 pints potatoes, wet them with butter, add sweet herbs, pepper, salt, fill and roast" the turkey with that instead. Why have your buttery, smooth, golden mashed potatoes as a side when you could just cram as much of it as necessary to fill the cavity of your 20-pound bird? That way you wouldn't even have to add any gravy to the potatoes since they'd taste entirely like turkey already.

8. DON'T FORGET TO FROTH YOUR TURKEY!

The Frugal Housewife asserts that "when your fowls are thoroughly plump, and the smoke draws from the breast to the fire, you may be sure that they are very near done. Then baste them with butter; dust on a very little flour, and as soon as they have a good froth, serve them up."

Why would you want "a good froth" on your turkey, you ask? According to An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Thomas Webster and Mrs. William Parkes, published in 1855, all meat should be "frothed" before serving "to plump up the skin of meat or poultry, by which the appearance of the joint is much improved."

If encasing the turkey you just spent hours roasting to crispy-skinned perfection in a foamy blond roux just before serving doesn't sound "much improved" to you, you can kick it up a notch with other dredges like "flour and grated bread," "sugar finely powdered, and mixed with pounded cinnamon and grated bread" or "fennel seed, corianders, cinnamon, and sugar, finely beaten, and mixed with grated bread." 

9. SERVE WITH "CRAMBERRIES" AND MANGOES ON THE SIDE.

iStock

Amelia Simmons suggests turkey be served "with boiled onions and cramberry-sauce, mangoes, pickles or celery." I don't know why we decided to standardize the spelling of cranberry with an n, because cramberries is clearly the empirically superior word. As for the mangoes, they were introduced to Britain's American colonies in the 17th century and were pickled, since the fresh ones couldn't withstand the long journey from the tropics. By the time American Cookery was written, pickled mangoes were so widespread that "to mango" was another word for pickling, as you can see in Simmons' "To pickle or make Mangoes of Melons" recipe.

10. DON'T SERVE THE DRUMSTICKS!

iStock

"There are two side bones by the wing, which may be cut off; as likewise the back and tower side-bones: but the best pieces are the breast, and the thighs after being divided from the drum-sticks."
A New System of Domestic Cookery by Maria Eliza Rundell, 1807.

"Do not help any one to the legs, or drum-sticks as they are called."
Directions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches by Miss Leslie, 1840.

"The prime parts of a fowl are the wings, breast, and merrythought. The legs, except of young fowls, are considered as coarse. The thigh part, when separated from the drumstick, is sometimes preferred by those who consider the whiter meat of the fowl as insipid."
An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Thomas Webster and Mrs. William Parkes, 1855.

"The lower part of the leg (or drum-stick, as it is called) being hard, tough, and stringy is rarely ever helped to any one, but allowed to remain on the dish."
The White House Cook Book by F. L. Gillette and Hugo Ziemann, 1897.

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