History of Barbecue: In America and Beyond

We all love the smoky and rich flavor of barbecue food. Ribs, briskets, pulled pork, and even smoked mutton are some of the most delicious dishes that I can imagine. But where does this tasty tradition of cooking originate and how did it evolve into so many different styles?

The history of barbecue is such an intriguing topic that it definitely deserves a deep and thorough exploration.

So buckle up and enjoy your journey from the ancient barbecue pits and spit roasts all the way to the modern-day dishes and equipment.

Let’s start by taking a quick look at what the word “barbecue” actually means.

What is Barbecue?

If you present this question to people from the United States, you might get various and contrasting answers on what this flame-to-meat merging tradition is. There are as many different ways to barbecue meat in the US as there are cowboys in Texas.

And it gets even more mind-boggling when you ask the British or Chinese what their concept of barbecue is!

bbq smoker

In fact, there is no such thing as one specific and correct definition for this word. So let’s not spend too much time with it. What I’m trying to do is just to get us all on the same page so we can start talking about the history of barbecue.

Where Did the Word Come From?

A Spanish explorer named Gonzalo Oviedo was the first one to use the word “barbecoa” or anything similar in printed form. This happened in the 16th century when he published a book called Historia General y Natural de las Indias that described Native Americans cooking meat on a wooden rack. According to him, the word came from the Taino dialect of the Arawak American Indians.

Although this might not be a very accurate description of the word’s origin. “Barbecoa” could just be a poorly written translation of a Taino word into Spanish. This seems, however, to be how the word was adopted in western culture.

What Does It Mean?

While the word “barbecue” can mean many things depending on where you are and who you’re asking, let’s just agree that barbecuing is a method of roasting (or broiling) food slowly in a presence of smoke.

Later on, as we are taking a closer look at different barbecue styles, we will also sharpen the definition.

The Early Days

Actually, humans were not the first ones to barbecue, because it first happened even before we had evolved.

I know what you’re thinking now. How is this possible? What the heck are you talking about?

Let me elaborate. Animals would get trapped in forest fires and get cooked in the flames, embers, and ashes that followed. So it was nature itself who first started this tradition.

So why is this relevant at all?

Though not supported by evidence, a sense of deduction tells me that it’s very likely that humans who were hunting would encounter animal carcasses that had been cooked in a forest fire. Of course, sometimes the animal would be burnt into an inedible pile of ashes, but other times under the charred skin, there would be a treasure of perfectly cooked meat.

cave painting with hunters

These hunters were probably hungry and the smell of cooked meat would have been aromatically delicious to them. After tasting it, they might have thought “Hmm, this tastes a whole lot better than that raw meat we had yesterday”.

They most likely noticed that cooked meat tasted better and was easier to eat.

Humans started eating meat and marrow from large animals at least 2.6 million years ago and the earliest firm evidence of humans cooking meat over fire dates back to about 800,000 years ago. It was often whole animals that were impaled with a stick and roasted over a fire. This is actually called spit barbecue, and it is still a popular method of cooking in many parts of the world.

In addition to improved taste and absorption of nutrients, cooking and smoking meat allowed the early hunter-gatherers to preserve it for a longer time. This is due to the antimicrobial compounds of smoke and the fact that smoke works well for banishing insects. Slow smoking also dehydrates the meat which further increases its storage life.

Barbecue in the East

Researchers from the University of Haifa have found evidence that people living in the Carmel region, located in northern Israel, were getting into some serious barbecue already in the Early Stone Age, about 200,000 years ago.

These guys were living in a cave and preferred barbecuing fleshy cuts of various animals. After cooking them, they used flint knives to carve the meat off the bones. They also cracked the bones and ate the nutritious marrow inside.

A part of the Hebrew Old Testament written somewhere between 1500 and 1300 BC contains detailed plans for a barbecue rig. According to chapter 27 in the book of Exodus, Moses instructs his flock to build a large fire pit with fleshhooks, ash pans, and a grate.

barbecue old testament

As we can see, barbecuing meat has been popular in the Middle East for quite some time.

Next, let’s go a bit further east and take a look at their version of barbecue.

Have you ever heard about tandoor or kamado?

They are words from India and Japan that basically mean cooking food over coal using a ceramic vessel. In addition to India and Japan, the Chinese have also been using this type of cooking method for thousands of years.

tandoor oven

Barbecue in Europe

As expected, Europeans are no strangers to barbecue either and have been using elaborate rotisserie style cooking mechanisms for centuries. There is plenty of evidence to support this in the form of paintings depicting ox and pig roasts. Moreover, European museums are full of barbecue gadgets from simple iron grids to complicated rotating mechanisms.

An international gastronomic society called La Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs was founded in Paris in 1950. However, the history of this society can be traced all the way back to 1248. It started as a goose roasters guild but its authority was later expanded to the roasting of all poultry, meat, and game.

English people were very fond of cooking their beef over an open flame and often had a young boy occupied by constantly rotating a rotisserie. Later, even a particular breed of dog with short legs, “the turnspit dog”, was bred especially for this purpose.

windsor castle barbecue 1887
Barbecue in Windsor Castle, England, in 1887

Many European countries have their own strong barbecue traditions. For example, you might have heard of the Hungarian sausages, a very famous delicacy.

Czech and German people also have long traditions of smoking meat. Immigrants from these countries settled in Texas during the mid-19th century and brought with them traditions that had a great influence on the development of the barbecue culture in that area.

Barbecue in America

How it Started

As mentioned earlier, the word barbecue is most likely taken from indigenous Native Americans when the Spanish explorers discovered them cooking meat over an indirect fire. This technique of slow-cooking meat later became popular in the colonies and formed the base where American barbecue grew on.

No one is truly certain where the term “barbecue” originated. The leading theory is that upon arrival in the Caribbean the Spanish used the word barbacoa to refer to the locals’ method of slow-cooking meat and fish over a wooden platform.

Interestingly enough, barbacoa was actually the name for a wooden rack, not simply a cooking gadget. Other early adventurers depicted comparable gadgets being used to store food above the damp ground and out of reach of animals, as well as a bed for sleeping above the vermin.

Taino Native American barbecue

Gonzalo Oviedo described it as a loft made with canes, which they build to keep their maize in, and which they call a barbacoa.

Explorer Hernando De Soto who landed in 1539 brought 300 hogs with him and frequently cooked a feast of pork over the barbacoa. Eventually, the strategy made its way to the colonies, traveling as far north as Virginia.

Pigs were prevalent in the region which is why they became the primary meat at barbecues. The original BBQ-ers of the southern colonies depended on the cheap, low-maintenance nature of pig farming. Unlike cows, which require a huge measure of feed and enclosed spaces, pigs could be released in forests to eat when food supplies were coming up short.

Barbecue allowed a bounty of food to be cooked immediately and turned into the go-to menu item for enormous social occasions.

Evolution and Different Styles

In the 19th century, making pig barbecue was common across the Southern regions of North America.

Barbecue doesn’t need expensive cuts of meat – why bother when you’re simply going to put it in sauce and cook it until it falls off the bone? It became a dietary staple for devastated Southern blacks, who habitually matched it with vegetables like fried okra and sweet potatoes.

Colonial age barbecue

On the first half of 20th century, a mass migration of African Americans happened from the rural South to Northern cities, and as they moved, they took their recipes with them. By the 1950s, black-owned barbecue joints had sprouted in nearly every city in America.

Barbecue is also known as “soul food”. To this day, there is a strong connection between the cuisine and the African-American community.

Other countries’ barbecues also have their own style. Korean barbecue features thin slices of beef or pork cooked and served with rice. Argentina has asado, or marinade-free meat cooked in a smokeless pit. And there’s Mongolian barbecue, which is neither grill nor stir-fry.

Texan barbecue pit
A Texan barbecue pit

But we can say that the true barbecue is distinctly American. Patriotism never tasted so delicious. Today, barbecue plays a huge role in Southern cuisine, which is famous for its rich and zesty flavor.

We can roughly divide American barbecue into 6 distinct styles:

  • North Carolina barbecue is all about smoking hogs. In the east, it’s common to smoke the whole hog and serve it with a vinegar-based sauce. In the west, it’s mostly the shoulder part that goes into the smoker. This Lexington-style barbecue comes with a tomato-based sauce and is usually served on a sandwich.
  • South Carolina is famous for whole smoked hogs served with different sauces including a mustard sauce. Part of the state is even known as the Mustard Belt.
  • In Texas barbecue usually means smoked beef brisket served without sauce. Pork ribs and spicy beef sausages are also popular.
  • Kansas City is known for its variety of barbecue dishes. The meats are typically smoked with hickory wood and served with a thick and sweet sauce.
  • Memphis barbecue is all about heavily smoked pulled pork dishes. They also have wet and dry ribs. The wet ones are marinated and then smoked, while the dry ones are rubbed with spices before smoking.
  • Kentucky barbecue is focused on smoked mutton served with Worcestershire-based sauce.

Modern-Day Equipment

Starting up the flame broil and preparing a dinner outside is one of only a handful few base delights actually left to the modern cook. No need for pots, dish, power or complicated techniques – it’s just you, some fire, and food.

Over the years, there have been numerous progressions to how individuals cook food, and explicitly the way that we barbecue our meat. Grills have gone from being wasteful and messy to being a mainstream and relaxing methods of cooking used by Americans today.

Since one of the foundations of American grilling is a little bit of gear obsession, we separate the history of all the barbecuing innovation we’ve come to love:

1940s

In the late 1940s, when more people were deciding to live in suburbs after the war, numerous backyards became filled with grills. However, these mass-produced appliances were ordinarily known for being difficult to use and often burning the meat.

1952

The idea was refined by a welder named George Stephen. He cut metal to make vault-formed charcoal grills which were the first versions of a Weber Kettle.

The top half was used as a cover to seal in the flavor and help distribute heat more evenly. He then added the vents so the fire could be controlled better. The design is what many people think of when they think about barbecue grills.

George Stephen and Weber kettles

1960s

There was a push to get people to purchase more flammable gas. Melton Lancaster and William G. Wepter, from the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company, made another kind of barbecue that ran on propane. This increased the cost of barbecuing. However, these appliances were often easier to use and they boomed in popularity which made people replace some of the older models.

1980s

A man named Bill Best added clay burners to barbecue. The thought was that the tile was warmed by the propane making infrared radiation to prepare the food directly. This design is commonly used in restaurants for its capacity to more equitably cooked food while additionally securing juices, keeping the meat delicate and tasty.

In addition, devices specialized in slow-cooking meat, such as pellet and offset smokers, started to emerge and became available for consumers.

1990s

Individuals were turning out to be more health-conscious and began to view excess body fat negatively. At that point, George Foreman developed a grill known for lessening fat. The design grilled from both the top and bottom allowing the fat to deplete off. Sales were in hundreds of millions, and the name is still well-known today.

2000s

Various barbecue rigs from rotisserie-equipped grills to vertical smokers and portable solutions are now available on the market. You can even find smoker grill combos that can handle searing steaks and burgers in high heat as well as smoking your ribs and briskets low and slow.

Also, infrared grills have become cheaper as the patent on them expired. However, they still cost so much that they are not accessible to everybody.

Nowadays, when these words are uttered: barbecue, BBQ, barbecue grills – they appear to be used conversely. It means an invitation for friends and loved ones to gather to make some great memories and have a good time.

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About the Author

Hi, I’m Joonas!

As soon as I learned to walk, I started to assist my dad and uncles with grilling and smoking. I always loved helping them and later took over the role of the grill master in my family.

My goal is to cook tasty barbecue food, enjoy it with family & friends, and help others do the same!

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