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.”
There’s a reason that what is commonly known as “the barbecue belt” - extending from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico and then west through Kansas City and Texas - is located in the South. Large pastures and farming communities in this part of the country made raising animals ripe for the coals much easier. While chicken and beef have always been on the menu, no animal defines Southern barbecue quite like the pig. Cheaper and easier to raise than cow, pigs were often allowed to go off on their own into the forests, only to be caught when they were needed as food. These semi-wild pigs were usually leaner and the meat tougher than farm-raised animals, but with the slow tenderizing nature of barbecuing, that didn’t matter. Swine was such a favorite in the South of the early 19th century that the population ate five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef. In fact, pig became so intertwined with Southern way of life that it became a point of nationalistic pride, so much so that farmers refused to import any of their supply to the North.
Also, the people barbecuing helped the culinary tradition evolve. As one would expect in the pre-Civil War south, the slave population had the primary responsibility over cooking and barbecuing. Adding their own distinct spices, flavors and methods, barbecuing became such a part of African-American tradition that when the announcement that slavery had been abolished finally reached Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 - two years after the Emancipation Proclamation - it was celebrated with a barbecue. To this day, “Juneteenth” is still marked with a giant barbecue feast. In the early 20th century, barbecue started spreading east, west and north due in large part to the African-American migration in between the two world wars.
Perhaps what makes barbecue so uniquely American is that it was developed over centuries, pulling techniques, traditions and methods from many different types of people and cultures. As Salon puts it, “This most American of foods is precisely so American because Europeans adopted the cooking technology from the Indians they exterminated while giving the job of chef to the slaves they brought from Africa.” There is no better exemplar of the complex and, at times, fraught history of the nation than that.