The History of Barbecue: Part I

A little tongue in cheek look back at the origins of Barbecue

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When examining the history of Barbecue people quickly break down into the age old argument of what exactly Barbecue is. If we credit the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean with the advent of Barbecue as a method of preserving meat then it only follows that modern day Barbecue is an evolution of this process, changing over time into that great southern icon, Barbecued Pork (or pulled pork). However, if you wander out of the south you quickly find people who "Barbecue" hamburgers on their Weber grill.

In my life, I have eaten things referred to as Mongolian Barbecue, Japanese Barbecue, and Greek Barbecue. All of these are very different things. The biggest debate you will find along the purists of the meaning of Barbecue will occur if you bring together a Texan and a South Carolinian. In Texas, Barbecue means Beef, particularly Brisket. In the Carolina's (the whole south for that matter), Barbecue means Pork (typically shoulder roasts and Boston butts).

So where do you start with a History of Barbecue? Let's start with this somewhat controversial premise. Everything that is typically called Barbecue has a couple of things in common. Barbecue requires meat. You grill vegetables. For those of us living in the twentieth century, meat, regardless of what kind is far more prevalent than it was to our ancestors. Industrialized ranching, refrigeration, and mass trucking of goods have made meat a not only a staple of diet but practically an every meal entree.

In the evolution of Barbecue, wherever that evolution took place, one this has always been a constant. Barbecue is more than a meal. It is an event. People gather for good barbecue, whether invited or not. A barbecue is an event that gathers people around a fire to watch, smell and eat. Like the fires of prehistory, this is the place to eat, drink and tell stories.

My point? Before you start brawling, remember that a barbecue is a social event and though you might not agree with the process, the food is always good. So my goal in this series of features will be to examine Barbecue in all its forms from the perspective of each individual history. I will be starting with the origin of Barbecue in the United States and in later features will look at the evolution of both Texan and Southern Barbecue individually.

When the first Spanish explorers arrived in the new world they found the indigenous people of the Caribbean preserving meats in the sun. This is an age-old and almost completely universal method. The chief problem with doing this is that the meats spoil and become infested with bugs. To drive the bugs away the natives would build small, smoky fires and place the meat on racks over the fires. The smoke would keep the insects at bay and help in the preserving of the meat.

Tradition tells us that this is the origin of Barbecue, both in the process and in the name. The natives of the West Indies had a word for this process, "barbacoa". It is generally believed that this is the origin of our modern word Barbecue, though there is some debate on the matter.

The process began to evolve with the migration of Europeans and Africans to the region of the Southern United States. European pigs and cattle were transplanted to the new world and became the primary meat source for the colonies, pork being the meat of choice in the South due to the ability of pigs to thrive with little care. The racks used to dry the meat were replaced with pits and smoke houses.

Now, pit cooking is by no means new at this point in history or specific to any particular region of the world. If we define Barbecue as a process of cooking meat (or specifically pork) in pits then the inventors of this process are probably the Polynesians who have been masters of slow, pit cooked pork for thousands of years. So we will have to leave the definition for another time.

The process of slowly cooking meat in early colonial times was often reserved for poor cuts of meat left for slaves and low-income peoples.

Higher quality meats had no need for a process of cooking that would reduce the toughness of the meat. Throughout the south, Barbecue has long been an inexpensive food source, though labor intensive. But I am getting ahead of myself.

One thing to remember that without a process of refrigeration, the meat had to be either cooked and eaten quickly after slaughter or preserved by either a spicing or smoking process. Traditionally spicing requires that large amounts of salt be used to dry the meat and lower the ability of contaminants to spoil the meat. Smoking in this period of time had much the same effect. The indigenous practitioners of Barbecue, cold smoked meat meaning that the meat was dried by exposure to the sun and preserved by the addition of smoke.