4th of July is just around the corner, and people across the country are planning to barbecue for the holiday. As America’s birthday, it’s fitting that we often celebrate the 4th by hosting or attending barbecues and grilling cookouts with friends, family and neighbors. Barbecue isn’t just a way to cook food—it’s a social gathering that has brought people together for centuries. During the Republic’s earliest years, Americans held barbecues on the 4th of July not only to celebrate their independence, but to also strengthen their community’s democratic values.
Before we dig into some smoky, char-broiled, lip-smacking history, let’s clear up a common misconception: grilling and barbecuing are not the same thing. While the terms are often used interchangeably (particularly in the northern United States), the truth is that grilling and barbecuing are two very different cooking methods. Grilling is the most basic form of cooking—it is, quite simply, the method of cooking a food directly over an open flame or high heat source. Barbecue, on the other hand, is a low and slow method of cooking over indirect heat. Because of the long, slow cooking process, barbecued meat soaks up the smoky flavors and spice rubs, rendering the finished product moist and tender. Barbecue is more suited to bigger, tougher cuts of meat that do well with slow, even cooking—brisket, tri-tip, ribs, and tender pulled pork. Grilling is reserved for foods that can cook more quickly—hamburgers, steaks, chicken, hot dogs, seafood and vegetables.
Traditional barbecue enthusiasts have long taken issue with those who consider grilling “barbecue.” In 1954, journalist Rufus Jarman described the division in the Saturday Evening Post: “Many Georgia epicures insist that this is an insult to the honorable name of barbecue. You cannot barbecue hamburgers, roasting ears, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, wieners, or salami, and it is a shame and disgrace to mention barbecuing in connection with such foolishness.” And yet, many continue to use the two terms interchangeably. Whatever you want to call it, one thing is certain—cooking with fire produces incredible, flavorful results.
The history of grilling stretches back to caveman days, when a brilliant ancestor of ours discovered that holding meat directly over an open flame for an extended period of time “cooked” the meat. Most likely, cavemen stumbled upon animals that had been killed in forest fires. After scavenging the meat, they found it more tasty and easier to digest than the raw stuff. While I wish I could give credit where credit is due, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where this cooking method was first used. Anthropologists have never come to a consensus on when our earliest ancestors first learned to “cook” and prepare food. Current estimates place the advent of cooking anywhere between 2 million and 300,000 years ago—a pretty wide range. So on the grilling front, the best I can do is thank Mister Caveman or Miss Cavewoman (from an anthropological standpoint, it was more likely a “mister”) for their remarkable contribution to our cooking heritage.
The history of barbecue is slightly easier to explore, thanks to our growing culinary curiosity and our hunger to learn about the foods of our ancestors. Twenty years ago, very little was available on the history of barbecue. More recently, food experts have worked hard to uncover the history of barbecue. Now over 30 books on the subject are available. Our American appreciation of barbecue has roots in the Caribbean. The word barbecue likely originated with the Caribbean Taino Indians, who would smoke or dry meat over a frame made of green sticks. Edward Ward recorded one of the earliest English tales of barbecue in his travel account, “The Barbacue Feast: or, the three pigs of Peckham, broil’d under an apple-tree.” The pamphlet was published in London in 1706. In his story, several English colonists had been enjoying a rum-filled evening in Peckham, Jamaica when their bellies began to rumble. They decided to create a rack from sticks with a fire burning beneath. Once the fire had burned the sticks down to coal, long wooden spits were placed across the rack and topped with three whole pigs. Using the resources available to them, the men crafted a foxtail “brush” to baste the meat with a mixture of pepper and Madeira wine. The pigs were cooked for several hours before being removed, portioned, and distributed to onlookers. Cooking food over a fire was nothing new, but the social aspect of barbecue was a new and noteworthy experience for Ward. He described how the events were scheduled to start well before the food was served. Guests gathered around to watch every detail of the cooking process, from the construction of the pit to the removal of the meat from the fire. Cooking became a communal experience.
From its earliest Caribbean roots, barbecue settled in the state of Virginia, then moved south through North and South Carolina, Georgia, the Appalachians and into Tennessee and Kentucky. From there, barbecue moved westward as Americans began to settle the West. By the early 19th century, barbecue hit Texas (where it obviously made a big impression), then moved all through the Southwest before finally reaching the Pacific coastline. Today, barbecue is popular nationwide, but remains most culturally significant to the states of the South and West.
Early colonial barbecues were often loud, unruly and populated with heavy drinkers. The temperance movement of the early 19th century changed all that, eventually turning barbecues into well-mannered and civilized events that brought communities together. During the Civil War, the cooking style gained political significance. Families would host public barbecues in order to rally support for the troops.
It wasn’t until the 1890’s that barbecued foods became commercially available. Prior to that time, barbecue was always served as part of a communal, potluck-style meal. As the popularity of barbecue grew, men who considered themselves to be barbecue experts recognized a market and began charging for their services during holidays and public ceremonies. At first, they cooked the food in temporary tents that could be moved from place to place. These barbecue tents eventually turned into permanent indoor structures, which became the earliest barbecue restaurants. While barbecue was fast becoming a commercial enterprise, backyard barbecues, often referred to as “cookouts,” saw a rise in popularity.
Barbecue also has strong ties to African American culture. Because of the long, slow cooking process inexpensive cuts of meat could be used, making it a cost-effective way to put meat on the table. Poor black communities in the South embraced barbecue as an affordable way to cook and enjoy meat, leading it to become one of several core soul food dishes. When blacks migrated North in the early 1900’s, they brought barbecue with them. By the mid-century, barbecue restaurants run by black cooks and their families had cropped up in cities across the United States.
Cooking barbecue is a point of pride for many Americans. Barbecue contests that started during the 1980’s now play host to crowds of over 100,000 people. Each state has it’s own signature style of barbecue, differing from the type of meat used, to the sauce (or lack of sauce), the side dishes, and even the type of wood it’s cooked over. South Carolina is known for its pork barbecue with a mustard based sauce; in Kansas City, beef brisket or sliced turkey is cooked over hickory, oak or pecan wood and covered with a sweet, tomato-based sauce; in Texas, beef is cooked “Cowboy Style” over open mesquite fires and often served without sauce; in Memphis, you’ll find pork ribs and pulled pork sandwiches covered in thick, sweet molasses barbecue sauce.
Whether it’s ribs, beef brisket, dry rub or honey molasses sauce, barbecue never fails to bring people together. Grilling tends to have the same effect. Will you be hosting or attending a “cookout” this 4th of July? Here are six awesome recipes for you to try!
The Shiksa in the Kitchen: Ima Burgers with Sriracha Mayo
Simply Recipes: Slow and Low Country Ribs
Simply Recipes: Barbecued Buffalo Wings
Leite’s Culinaria: Ribs with Spicy Bourbon Barbecue Sauce
Smith, Andrew F. (2007). The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford University Press, New York, New York.
Moss, Robert F. (2010). Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Ward, Edward (1706). The barbacue feast: or, the three pigs of Peckham, broil’d under an apple-tree: … By the author of The trip to Jamaica. Republished by Gale ECCO, 2010.
Pickrell, John. Human “dental chaos” linked to evolution of cooking. New Scientist, February 19, 2005