History of Barbeque

bbq_historyThe history of Barbeque: Barbecue is a method for cooking meat or poultry with the heat and hot smoke of a fire, smoking wood, or the hot coals of charcoal. It may include application of a marinade, spice rub or basting sauce to the meat or vegetables. Barbecue has numerous regional variations in many parts of the world. Barbecue (the method, not the word) may have originated with Cro-Magnon man somewhere in France around 30000 BC. He occasionally cooked his meat over an open flame. A more recent source is the Arawak culture that Columbus met upon his arrival in the Caribbean in 1492

The word “barbecue” is derived from Brabacot or Baracoa and was one of the first Amerindian words to enter European vocabularies after Columbus crossed the ocean in 1492. It was used by the Arawaks and Caribs, the two major tribes of the Caribbean, to describe a cooking method using green sticks fashioned into a grill over a slow, smoky fire. The basic idea of outdoor cooking has changed very little in the intervening years and virtually any cut of meat will benefit from the smokiness of a wood fire.

Both the word itself and the cooking method — were used by American Indians before the Spanish explorers arrived in 1492. The American Indians in the Caribbean gave the word “barbecue” and taught the cooking method to the early explorers, who returned and popularized it in Europe. Sixty years later, English colonists brought the word and cooking method back to North America, where it has been enjoyed ever since. Barbecue is one of the most American foods we eat today—in fact, it’s so American, it predates Christopher Columbus’ arrival. When that geographically confused Italo-Spaniard washed ashore on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1492, Columbus, according to his diaries, assumed this cooking style was proof of savagery among the native population.

We can thank explorer Hernando de Soto for the introduction of the pig to North America in general and Virginia in particular. You see, the pigs that de Soto first brought to the North American mainland in 1539, had so flourished in Virginia that the English settlers were by now enjoying “pork . . . as good as any in the world.” Already then, in this pun, a reversal characteristic of barbecue culture becomes evident. No sooner is it condemned as savage, branded somehow animalistic, than it becomes cherished and sought after by the elite and well-to-do. This wouldn’t be the last time either.

Jump ahead a couple of hundred years and we see that the love affair with “Baracoa” or barbecue, this savage way of preparing fresh game meat, has only deepened. The first barbecuers in “modern” America were usually African slaves who combined their native methods of roasting meat with know-how picked up from their passage in the West Indies. The most important point, then and now, was the knowledge that barbecue takes many hours to absorb its smoky flavor and must be cooked very slowly over indirect heat, usually over hardwood coals, and not over the fire itself. Authentic barbecue is still cooked the old-fashioned way… Low and Slow. The sharecroppers, slaves and field hands were often given the “waste” parts of the cattle or fresh game to feed to their families. With that American spirit known as “Necessity being the mother of invention”, the recipients of this tossed aside “waste” turned it into a healthy meal and a cherished pastime. Sumptuous aromas and joyous family gatherings full of laughter and music where soon noticed by the wealthy land owners and an American pastime, way of life and, dare I say, an obsession was born.

In one diary entry, dated May 27 1769, George Washington describes when he “went up to Alexandria to a barbicue.” What I find most fascinating about his subsequent entries over the next few years, is that it reveals George to be the very antithesis of what we have come to believe with regard to his personality and demeanor. To most of us, the ‘Father of Our Country’ is portrayed a stoic and a serious individual, yet most of his entries concerning barbecue (there are many), are usually lighthearted and down to earth. Can this mean that barbecue is the great equalizer? Is it no surprise that a globe jaunting CEO and common laborer can stand side by side while they enjoy one of the very founding traditions of our combined ethos?

Barbecue joints were not usually commercial ventures until the 20th century, yet they were not entirely unknown among earlier caterers. A Tea and Coffee House in outlying Boston in 1769 offered to host barbecues for groups, “either Turtle or Pigg.” Also, occasionally in the 19th century a barbecued rabbit or such would show up on a hotel menu, particularly in the South. And toward the end of the 1800s barbecue stands, like hamburger stands, were likely to appear at fairs and public gatherings.
Jump ahead again another couple of hundred years and we see that the Barbecue culture is more popular than ever. I truly believe it is the “everyman” aspect or the wholesome, basic goodness that keeps not only Americans loyal to this way of life but, around the world, humankind enjoys not only the food itself but, the community atmosphere that comes along with open fire, song and family.

In the USA, there are four major types of BBQ –  Those four, in order of historical emergence, are Vinegar and Pepper, Mustard, Light Tomato and Heavy Tomato. And while there is always disagreement on the varieties of preparation, such as whether one should use a dry rub or a wet rub and various other culinary arguments, all of the many sauces used in America generally will fall into one of those four basic groups.

According to Joe Haynes, author of Virginia Barbecue, A History, Barbecueś true home is right here in Virginia.


Photo courtesy of the South Carolina Barbeque Association 

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