The History of Barbecue

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Podcast Transcript

Many of the foods that people associate with America didn’t actually originate in the United States. Hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza are all things that were popularized in the US, but didn’t originate there. 

However, there is one form of cuisine which is uniquely American; Barbecue.

While it is American, it developed with influences from Native Ameircans, Africans, and Europeans.  

Learn more about Barbecue, how it developed and its regional differences, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before I get into a discussion of barbecue, I should probably define my terms a bit. When I said barbecue is a uniquely American cuisine, you might be thinking that there is Korean BBQ, Japanese BBQ, and many others. 

As you’ll see, those are very different forms of cooking compared to an American barbecue. The word barbecue was associated with those cooking styles by Americans after the fact. 

Likewise, cooking meat over a fire is as old as humanity itself. Grilling, roasting, or broiling isn’t really something that has any particular origin. However, cooking on an open fire really isn’t barbecue, even though it is often called that. 

The origins of barbecue stem back to the native people who lived in the Caribbean before Europeans arrived, the Taino. These were the people who lived in what is today Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.

The Taino had a method of cooking where they would put fish on sticks over a pit fire they called a “barabicu” which meant “sacred pit” in their language. They would create a wooden rack over the pit where they would put the fish where it would be cooked by the fire and smoke.

When the Spanish arrived, they found this form of cooking to have a unique taste and they called the rack in which the meat was put upon, a barbacoa. 

This slow pit cooking is really the defining characteristic of what would become American barbecue. 

This method of cooking over a pit it turned out was quite common amongst the native peoples of the Americans in North, South, and  Central America, and it was adopted by the Europeans who settled in the region, particularly in the area we call “the South” today in the United States. 

As early as 1540, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto reported having roast pig over a barbacoa with the Chicksaw tribe in what is today the state of Mississippi.

The cooking method of slow-roasting over an open pit spread to the north and became popular in the British colonies. 

The Spanish barbacoa eventually became barbecue in English, and it didn’t just refer to the rack used in cooking, but to the method of cooking itself. It also was used to describe an event. A barbecue was something that was held and would often be a celebration. 

Many linguists think that the word might have actually gone from Spanish to Portuguese to French to English.

We know by the 1650s there were laws in Virginia regarding setting off cannons during a barbecue, and by the early 18th-century barbecued pig was popular during social gatherings in New England.

In 1756, the English writer Samuel Johnson had an entry for barbecue in his dictionary as both a noun and a verb. The verb “to barbecue” was defined as “a term for dressing a whole hog”, and the noun barbecue was defined as “a hog dressed whole”.

Even at this early time, barbecuing was closely associated with pork to a point where that is what it was defined as. 

Barbecuing was thought of by most people back in Europe as a rather barbaric practice, whereas American colonists adopted it in one of the first major cultural splits between Americans and the British. 

Here I should note that pigs are not native to the Americas. They were brought over by Europeans. 

Pigs, unlike cows, were really easy animals to keep. On many farms, you could keep a pig off of nothing by food scraps and other waste items from farming. 

In the south, they would often just let pigs roam free and fend for themselves. They could easily feed themselves by scavenging in the woods. When they needed to harvest one, you just needed to hunt one down which was easy to do. 

Much of the innovation in barbecue occurred in the south before the Civil War. There are estimates that before the Civil War southern states consumed five times as much pork as beef. 

When a hog was butchered on a plantation, the best cuts would usually go to the big house, and the toughest, worst cuts were often given to slaves. 

Over time they learned how to cook these cuts of meat such that the tough meat became extremely tender. It was done through slow cooking over wood with plenty of smoke. These slaves managed to take the cheapest cuts of meat and turn them into delicacies. 

These barbecue cooks became the first true pitmasters. They mastered the art of slow cooking pork and passed this knowledge down from generation to generation. 

The term “pulled pork” comes from this period. Most people think it describes shredded pork which is just pulled apart, however, slaves in the south would often just pull pieces of pork directly off the carcass as it was being cooked, which often took hours. Something which many people still do today if you happen to be around when pork is being cooked.

Also in the early 19th century, as the country spread west, barbecue spread west as well. Smoking meats turned out to be a great way method of preservation, which was one of the reasons why the original native Americans used this cooking technique. 

Barbecues also became firmly entrenched as something which was done for special occasions. Election rallies, church gatherings, and other celebrations were often centered around a barbecue.

After the civil war, barbecuing went from a simple way of cooking pork and developed into multiple, regional cuisines. Freed slaves who had much of the practical knowledge of barbecuing and pit roasting took this knowledge with them as they migrated to the north and to the west. 

Now I need to bring up something I haven’t mentioned yet. Sauces. 

The very first sauces were really just designed to keep the meat moist while cooking. They were often very simple and consisted of nothing more than butter, vinegar, wine, or even water. 

The first reference to a special barbecue sauce was in 1867 by a confederate widow, Mrs. A.P. Hill. She published Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book and in it gave the following recipe: 

“Sauce for Barbecues. – Melt half a pound of butter; stir into it a large tablespoon of mustard, half a teaspoon of red pepper, one of black, salt to taste; add vinegar until the sauce has a strong acid taste. The quantity of vinegar will depend upon the strength of it. As soon as the meat becomes hot, begin to baste, and continue basting frequently until it is done; pour over the meat any sauce that remains.”

For those of you familiar with sauces, you might have realized that this really doesn’t sound like any barbecue sauce you’ve probably ever had.

The rise of barbecue sauces was one of the reasons for the development of regional divisions in American barbecue. 

For those of you not from the United States, there isn’t one single American style of barbecue. There are several regional variations, with four primary ones, and people from those regions are passionate about their barbecue being the best. 

The first major barbecue style is the Carolinas. The defining characteristic of Carolina barbecue is its sauce which is mustard and vinegar-based. The use of Mustard originally came from German immigrants who heavily used mustard as an ingredient. 

Carolina barbecue is almost exclusively pork, and usually whole pork. 

I remember driving through South Carolina and I drove past a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint out in the middle of nowhere. I turned the car around to stop and eat. It was my first Carolina barbecue experience, and it was fantastic.

The second major barbecue style is Memphis barbecue. Memphis is located on the Mississippi River and so there was a wide variety of goods and people coming through the city. Memphis barbecue is defined by its tomato-based sauce. 

You can find other meats in Memphis barbecue, but it is mostly pork. In particular, it is usually pulled pork in a pulled pork sandwich, and often ribs as well.

In addition to the tomato-based sauce, you can also find Memphis-style dry ribs which use a dry rub instead. 

The third style of barbecue is Texas barbecue. Texas barbecue is really different from the rest of the country. Texas barbecue is much more reliant on beef rather than pork. The defining meat is slow-cooked brisket which is naturally really tough. 

You will often find sausages as well, which is another carry-over from German immigrants who settled in the region. 

Texas sauces are also more vinegar-based. 

The final major barbecue style is Kansas City barbecue. 

You can think of Kansas City barbecue as a cross between Memphis and Texas. Kansas City used to be a meatpacking hub, so you can find a wide variety of meats including brisket and ribs. The sauces are very sweet and tend to be the most popular type of barbecue sauce in the country. The classic Kansas City meat is burnt ends. 

There are many smaller regional variations as well including Maryland, St. Louis, Georgia, East Texas, and Central Texas. 

I should give special mention to two types of American barbecue that don’t fit into traditional American barbecue categories. 

The first would be a Louisiana Boucherie. This is a cajun and creole tradition where a hog would be butchered as a community event. Every part of the pig would be eaten, but it isn’t a slow whole hog roasting like you see elsewhere. 

I attended one during a Mardi Gras celebration a few years ago in Layfayette, Louisiana and it was a fantastic experience. 

The other special mention has to go to Hawaii. Hawaiian barbecue, or Polynesian pit cooking more generally, developed completely separately from barbecue in the mainland United States. 

A Hawaiian luau also involves a pig roasted on an open pit, but everything else is totally different. 

American barbecue has gone from something which was done informally for special occasions to a true culinary art form. 

If you want to eat the best sushi in the world, you can visit Michelin Star restaurants in Japan.

If you want to eat the best French cuisine, you can visit Michelin Star restaurants in France

However, there has never been a barbecue restaurant given a  Michelin Star in history. 

If you want to find really good barbecue you are going to find it at places which are not at all fancy. 

Look for a place that has a large pile of wood outside. Some of the best barbecue restaurants only are open during set times and on certain days. They will make a limited amount of food, and when they are out they are done. Most of the food will be sold to locals who are often the only ones who even know about it. 

You want to look for places that slow cook their pork for at least 16 to 24 hours. These long cooking times are one of the reasons why it is so hard for regular restaurants to do barbecue properly. 

You can certainly find some good barbecue restaurants in big cities. 

Rodney Scott is probably the best-known pitmaster in the country. He has restaurants in Charleston, Birmingham, and Atlanta. Likewise, even small regional chains like Gates BBQ or Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City are places I will go out of my way to visit when I’m in town. 

Today, most forms of cuisine can now be found all over the world. 

However, in the course of my pretty extensive travels, I have found very few American barbecue restaurants which provide a truly authentic experience. They do exist, but they often have to cut corners, usually with how their barbecue pit is run. 

I’ve been to barbecue restaurants in places such as Bangkok, Tel Aviv, and Vienna, and I have to confess I’ve been pretty disappointed every time. 

I’m also sure that people from every country think the same thing about their cuisine. 

As I mentioned at the start, slow-cooked, pit-roasted barbecue is one of the only truly original American cuisines. 

The best, and really only way to experience this centuries-old tradition is to get yourself to a real BBQ shack. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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