Get out the burgers, dogs, spatulas, cancer-causing grills and sexually inappropriate aprons because barbecue season is here once again. While grilling one’s meat to blackened perfection is an American summer institution, its origins actually predate the founding of the country. When Spanish conquistadors first landed on the shores of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic) in the 15th century, written accounts say that they saw the indigenous people grilling slabs of meat and fish on large wooden grates they called “babracots.” Here’s the history of one of America’s oldest and greatest culinary tradition, barbecuing.
First, a definition is in order. The word “barbecue” has evolved to take on several different meanings and a general definition for anything tasting spicy and wood-fired. For historical accuracy’s sake, “barbecuing” actually refers to a rather specific cooking method in which meat is cooked on a wooden framework and over a bed of coals on low heat for a long period of time. When Europeans first arrived at Hispaniola, they saw the tribes of the Taino-Arawak and the Carib use babracots to cook animal meat - ranging from pig to deer to iguana - using this method. While there are other theories about how the word came to be - for example, that it could have been derived from the French phrase “barbe à queue" meaning “from beard to tail” or that it stems from the word “barbarian” – the babracot story is the most generally accepted etymology among scholars.
Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, written accounts from Europeans are filled with detailed observations related to this method of cooking meat. One French traveler noted the patience that barbecuing required, “A Caribbee [a member of the Carib tribe] has been known, on returning home from fishing fatigued and pressed with hunger, to have the patience to wait the roasting of a fish on a wooden grate... over a fire so small.” Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto wrote in his diary that the Chickasaws fed him and his men a feast of barbecued pork. Meals of this nature became so popular - and required so much patience - that barbecuing became a social event, with horseshoes, betting and drinking taking place while everyone waited for the food to cook. Even George Washington loved his meat grilled over the coals, writing in his diary in 1773 that he enjoyed an evening of “Barbicue (sp) of my own giving at (Lake) Accotinck.”