We American’s like to think that we own barbecues. If there was anything more American than apple pie, it might just be the barbecue.
However, barbecue was not ‘invented’ by Americans. It predates the founding of the colonies by a hundred, potentially thousands of years.
In its earliest iterations, barbecuing can be attributed to the Arawak people of South America and the Caribbean and the Timucua people of Florida.
These indigenous peoples had long used barbecues to cook whole animals. The process involved digging a pit in the ground deep enough for a fire to sit in.
Over this pit, a framework of sticks would be built to hold the food. It would have plenty of holes and gaps to allow the smoke and flames below to cook and flavor the food.
Other early versions of the barbecue involved placing a pot in the ground below the food. This pot would collect juices as the meat cooked.
As the pot took up the space below, the heat and fire had to be applied to the meat in another way. Usually, maguey leaves would be wrapped around the carcass and coal layered on top. When ignited, the coal and leaves would cook the meat and give it a unique barbecue flavor.
Christopher Columbus and subsequent visitors to the Caribbean and Americas documented this process. These writings helped spread the barbecue process to Europe and the new colonies.
The European colonists changed and adapted the barbecue process and flavors. Mainly, European colonists introduced the idea of basting and marinating meat. In colonies with a large British population, like Virginia and North Carolina, the marinade would be vinegar based.
In the southern colonies where there was more of a French and German heritage, the sauces were mustard based.
The colonists also changed the animals cooked on the barbecue. The indigenous and native peoples mainly cooked lamb or pork as these animals were easier and cheaper to raise. However, when barbecue reached the German cow farmers who had settled in Texas, beef entered the game.
Nowadays, there are 4 prominent barbecue styles in the US. You have the vinegar-based Carolina barbecues, the tomato and molasses-based Kansas City style, the pork packed Memphis barbecue, and the beef-based Texas barbecue.
What defines a Barbecue?
The term ‘barbecue’ has become a bit muddied in recent years. People tend to use it to refer to any sort of outdoor cooking involving a rack or a grill.
However, true barbecues use indirect heat and smoke to cook food. The method is often referred to as low and slow because it can take hours to cook the meat over a low heat.
When meat or veg is cooked directly on gas flames or hot coals for a short period of time, this should more correctly be called grilling. It’s not the same as barbecuing, and you will anger a lot of people in the barbecue belt by using ‘barbecue’ as a catch-all phrase!
In North America, barbecues tend to use charcoal or wood as a fuel. These produce smoke as well as heat which is what gives the meat that characteristic barbecue taste.
As if that wasn’t confusing enough, the states in the barbecue belt argue amongst themselves about the definition.
A lot of the conflict focuses on what meat constitutes as a barbecue. Texans believe it has to be beef, North Carolina argues that it has to be a hog, while Kansas City says anything goes!
Even within the states there is further disagreement. North Carolina, for example, is split in two. One half of the state says you have to cook the whole hog for it to be a barbecue while the other part says it can just be the shoulder!
Ultimately, the thing that really unifies all the different barbecue factions is the agreement that it has to include smoke. Whether that’s wood smoke or charcoal smoke, it doesn’t matter. The rich smoky flavor is what makes or breaks a barbecue.
Why is it called a Barbecue?
Before we look at the etymology of the word, it is important to recognize that sometimes, it’s not even called a ‘barbecue.’
There are lots of local and international variations of the word ‘barbecue.’ Here in the US, you might see ‘barbeque’ ‘BBQ’ or even ‘Barb-b-q.’ In the UK, you typically see it written as ‘BBQ,’ while in Australia you tend to see and hear ‘barbie.’
Ultimately, all of these variations have the same root which is ‘barbacoa.’ This word is Arawak in origin meaning it comes from the Caribbean islands and their indigenous people.
When European explorers and settlers arrived at what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, they termed the language Hispaniola.
In any case, the word barbacoa was first brought to Europe by the Spanish colonialist Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo.
Originally, it referred to the wooden framework on which the meat was placed to cook rather than the actual act of cooking.
The word ‘barbacoa’ was borrowed by the Spanish thanks to Oviedo and was subsequently borrowed and bastardized by the Portuguese, French, and English languages.
It wasn’t until 1661 that barbecue was used as a verb. This use is found in the writings of Edmund Hickeringill an English author, soldier, and criminal. In his Jamaica Viewed writings he refers to flesh being ‘barbacu’d and eat.’
About 30 years later, the word would be used to refer to a frame constructed above the ground for cooking meat on. This usage can be found in William Dampier’s work New Voyage Around the World.
Interestingly, many of the early depictions and writings on barbecues and barbacoa had terribly negative tones. Before European colonists decided to appropriate and claim barbecuing as their own, they looked down on it as a practice of savages.
Many early European accounts falsified claims of cannibalistic barbecues that helped to create disdain for indigenous peoples of the ‘New World.’