Much has been said about the origins of barbecue as we know it. From the history of the cookout social event, to the roots of the word, barbecue has a rich and interesting past, which can be traced back a couple of hundreds of years ago, as the result of different cultures interacting with each other, passing on customs and traditions, and sharing many meals and recipes, giving us our beloved barbecue as a precious inheritance that will forever be a part of backyard gatherings and celebrations.
First, we need to talk about the origins of the word, which can be spelled in many different ways, like barbecue, barbeque, BBQ, Bar-B-Que, with the first one being the accepted, standardized form by different dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary; even Google gives us 221,000,000 results when we look for barbecue, and only 44,000,000 when we look for barbeque.
Some believe that the word barbecue comes from a French term, barbe á queue, which can be translated as from beard to tail, referring to the way pig would be cooked in its entirety, from its top, where the beard would be, to its end, at the tail. Further research on this term shows that it might not be the case after all, and even when it sounds like it makes sense, an official documentation of this use cannot really be found.
An interesting story of how the word barbecue became part of the English language relates to a whiskey bar from the 19th century mentioned in the Tar Heel magazine issue of February 1982. The article on such magazine explains that there used to be a place that was a bar, offered beer and pool, and the specialty of the house was roast pork. They came up with a sign that would let new customers know exactly what was offered there, displaying Bar-Beer-Cue-Pig, eventually turning to B-B-Q. As amazing as it sounds, there is no other record to confirm this story rather than the magazine article, thus giving us what might be one of the most beloved barbecue hoaxes out there.
The most documented explanation of the word, though, is that it comes from a Caribbean word, barbacoa, that the Spanish later used to refer to the way Taino Indian tribes used to cook their meat, using a wooden structure built around 3 foot above the ground, where they could take up to 18 hours to prepare a pig. We can trace the use of this word in print to 1526, and then to 1672, whether in Spanish dictionaries and travelers’ notes from the time. We can also trace African roots for the word barbecue, where the term babbake was used to describe the process of cooking meat on a grill, for a long time, with a lot of fire.
As time went by, this cooking method was brought to the United States by Spanish colonists, reaching first the south of the country, to what its known as the Barbecue Belt, which comprises four different regional styles of barbecuing: Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis, and Texas. Even when these regions ended up developing their own, unique barbecue styles and recipes, it all comes from the mixture of techniques, dishes, and meals of African, Native American, Mexican, Czech, and Jamaican traditions that happened to have their own versions of barbecue, and that ended up coming together in what would serve as a base for the new American version of it.
Nowadays, when we think of a Barbecue, we imagine a typical American cookout party, getting together our friends and family members, commemorating Fourth of July, watching the Super Bowl, someone’s birthday, or any other event we decide to celebrate. We might associate to our beloved grill too, even when, despite what some of us might think, grilling is not the same as barbecuing, and if you consider yourself a pitmaster who grills, we’re sorry to tell you that grillmaster might be a more appropriate term.