The Real History of Barbecue

Something magical happens when you take a piece of meat, place it over indirect heat, and let the smoke slowly do its work. The result is barbecue. So simple, and yet so perfect. What would our picnics be like without it? And what kind of sauce would we all argue about?

Barbecue has been with us for a long time. It’s practically our national dish here in the United States, but variations of this simple, timeless cooking method are popular all over the world. So where did it come from, and how did we arrive at what we now think of as modern barbecue? Well, let’s find out. 

Is Barbecue an American Invention?

American cuisine

Ask a bunch of Americans to name the ‘most American’ cuisine they can think of, and most of them will probably have the same answer: barbecue. In a way, they’d be right, but not necessarily in the way they might expect. It’s true that barbecue has been a staple of American culture since colonial times, but while barbecue has evolved to become a uniquely American form of cooking, its origins are as diverse as they are unique. 

The process of preserving meat through smoke and indirect heat has been practiced by Native Americans since long before Europeans showed up in the New World; and modern-day barbecue was largely developed in the hands of enslaved Africans in the American South. So in a sense, when you add it all up, barbecue really is about as American as it gets. 

What Defines Barbecue?

Before we get too deep into the origins of barbecue, let’s define our terms. Barbecue means different things to different people, but if you’re one of those guys who throws a few burgers on a Weber grill and calls it barbecue, we have a harsh truth for you. That ain’t barbecue.  

One could argue all day about the particulars of barbecue—the meat of choice (usually pork), the contents of the sauce (don’t get us started)—but at the end of the day, the most crucial ingredient in barbecue is time. Barbecue is a process of cooking meat ever-so-slowly at low temperatures over indirect heat. The coals are placed to either side or far below the meat, and the lid of the grill or smoker kept closed.

This process gradually smokes the meat and imparts the irresistible smoky flavor and falling-off-the-bone tenderness of barbecue. Meat is typically barbecued at temperatures between 225°F and 300°F, as opposed to grilling, which is a quicker cooking method in which meat is placed directly over a flame and cooked at temperatures often well above 500°F.

Origins of the Word Barbecue

While the origins of barbecue are complex, the origin of the word itself is relatively straightforward. It comes from the Spanish word barbacoa, first used by the explorer and historian Gonzalo Fernàndez de Oviedo y Valdés, who explored the New World just a few years after Columbus got back from his first 1492 trip.

Upon his return to Europe, Oviedo published a book called La historia general y natural de las Indias in 1535. In it, he described the customs and traditions of the peoples he had encountered.

1557 cover of La historia general y natural de las Indias
1557 cover of La historia general y natural de las Indias

The book included the first-ever mention of barbacoa. Oviedo learned the word from an Arawak-speaking people called the Taínos, inhabitants of Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola. Barbacoa was actually derived from the Taíno word barabicu, which referred to a type of lattice, made of wood or reeds, which the Taínos would place above a fire and use to slowly preserve meat by smoking. 

The first known English use of the word barbecue came in Edmund Hickeringill’s 1661 travelogue, Jamaica Viewed, in which he makes mention of animals “slain, and their flesh forthwith barbacu’d and eat.” Samuel Johnsson’s 1756 Dictionary gives us an official definition (“a hog drest whole”) as well as the modern spelling of barbecue, which we use to this day.

Speaking of spelling, Merriam-Webster considers “barbeque” as a perfectly acceptable, albeit less common, variant. Abbreviations like “BBQ” and “Bar-B-Q” aren’t technically correct, but who are we to object?

Where Barbecue Comes From

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds while attempting to trace the origins of barbecue. Human beings have been cooking meat over fire for as long as they’ve had access to meat and fire—Homo erectus was a real grill-master—and our ancestors have been practicing something close to barbecue for millions of years.

Cooking methods more closely resembling modern barbecue can be found in ancient peoples from practically every corner of the globe. Inhabitants of the islands of Polynesia, for example, have been masterfully slow-cooking meat in earthen ovens for thousands of years

That being said, the origins of what we generally consider to be American barbecue can be traced back to the Arawak and Taíno people of the Caribbean (some of the same groups whom Gonzalo Fernàndez de Oviedo y Valdés encountered back in the early 1500s) as well as the Timucua people, who inhabited parts of Florida around the same time. All of these tribes, along with many other groups throughout North and South America, had developed a similar solution to a shared problem: how to preserve meat. 

Preserving meat by letting it dry in the sun is a practice as old as civilization itself, and it’s been done all over the world for millennia. But there’s a major drawback to this method, especially in tropical climates. Meat tends to spoil and become infested with insects before it has a chance to dry. Hence, the ingenious solution: add some smoke to the equation.

Smoky fire
Where there’s fire, there’s smoke.

Cooks in the Taíno and similar tribes would build fires, sometimes in pits, and lay meat across racks above the fires, far enough from the embers that the heat from the fire would dry the meat slowly, while the smoke kept insects at bay and aided the preservation process.

The word barbacoa referred not to the method of cooking, but to the woven wood racks used to hold the meat. But the concept aroused a lot of curiosity when news of it made it back to Europe; and in America, it caught on like wildfire. 

Evolution of Barbecue in the United States

In the United States, barbecue evolved slowly over time, eventually coming to fill a beloved niche in our culture. At a certain point, the word no longer referred to simply a method of cooking, but an event. And not only an event, but an event that brought communities together in celebration, often lasting for days.

People would attend barbecues to celebrate Independence Day, to rejoice in a successful harvest, to mark a birthday or anniversary, or for the pure enjoyment of it. They still do. 

Traditions surrounding American barbecue date back to colonial times. The first American writer to refer to barbecue in print was John Lederer, who noted the practice in his 1671 publication, The Discoveries of John Lederer, an account of his travels throughout Virginia and North Carolina.

But even in colonial times, barbecue was most often a cooking method used by Natives and, in many cases, slaves. It was common for European colonists to look down on barbecue and those who made it as crude and uncivilized. These perceptions were, unfortunately, slow to change. But change they did.

George Washington
“Went in to Alexandria to a Barbicue and stayed all Night.”

George Washington was a noted barbecue enthusiast, and wrote with great affection in his journal of the many barbecues he either hosted or attended. “Went in to Alexandria to a Barbicue and stayed all Night,” he jotted down in 1769. As president, Washington laid the first cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol Building in 1793; he and his fellow statesmen then celebrated by devouring a 500-pound barbecued ox. 

Washington wasn’t the only president to profess his love for this evolving American cuisine. Jefferson and Madison are known to have corresponded about the meats best suited to Virginia barbecue (Jefferson preferred venison, Madison was in favor of small game). Lincoln was known for a savvy tactic of throwing picnics and barbecues that were also political rallies. 

Barbecues became more popular and more mainstream over the course of the 19th century. The first charcoal briquet factory was designed by Thomas Edison and built by Henry Ford in 1921.

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Warren Harding and Harvey Firestone near cabin, Firestone camp.
Harris & Ewing, photographer. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Warren Harding and Harvey Firestone near cabin, Firestone camp. United States, None. [Between 1921 and 1923] Photograph.

The coming Great Depression put a damper on a lot of celebratory picnics, but by the ‘barbecue boom’ of the 1950s, the idea of barbecuing at home became much more widespread.

That original briquet factory, once known as Ford Charcoal, was sold to the Weber Grill Company in 1951, and renamed Kingsford Charcoal after Ford’s business partner in the briquet business, Edward G. Kingsford. It was during this time—the Cold War ’50s and ’60s—that Americans really began to really embrace and emphasize the ‘American-ness’ of barbecue.

Applying Barbecue Sauce
Thomas, Keith, Lonny Hill, and Carl Fleischhauer. Applying Barbecue Sauce, 1978. June. Photograph.

Barbecue came to be seen more and more to represent masculinity, frontier ruggedness, and America in general. Of course, like most things that might be seen to symbolize America, barbecue’s origins and traditions are more diverse that one might expect.

Barbecue Origins and Traditions

The heart of American barbecue has always been the South. Modern barbecue can be traced back to what still sometimes refer to as the ‘Barbecue Belt,’ a loosely-defined region that extends from the Atlantic Ocean west as far as Texas and Oklahoma, north as far as Missouri, Kentucky and Virginia, and southward to the Gulf of Mexico and northern Florida. 

This is where barbecue grew up and came into its own. Records suggest that began developing in the southeastern corner of this region, and spread as America expanded. It was carried into new territories by settlers and pioneers, but also by freed slaves after the Civil War. As freedmen headed north and west, seeking new homes in places like Texas, Kansas and Missouri, the brought barbecue with them. 

In fact, it’s impossible to overstate the African-American influence on the evolution of barbecue. In the 18th and early 19th century, the most frequent practitioners of this particular for form of cooking were slaves.

In these early days, barbecue was a way to slowly cook tough cuts of meat to make them more tender. African cooking techniques and ingredients would become an essential part of barbecue’s evolution, combining with methods learned from Native Americans.

Port Royal, South Carolina. Slaves quarters.
O’Sullivan, Timothy H, photographer. Port Royal, South Carolina. Slaves quarters. United States, 1862. Apr. Photograph.

Over time, barbecue was more widely embraced by white Southern landowners, and the term came to refer more to a celebration in which a whole hog was butchered and slow cooked. But even at these celebrations, it was usually slaves who prepared the meat. It has also been suggested that the term “Pit Master” referred to a slave who would have been in charge of the cooking.

Barbecue was carried westward and northward by railway and wagon train, and in the minds and cookbooks of those who had become masters of it. As more and more European immigrants came to America—Germans, Czechs, Poles, Russians—they brought with them their own traditions and skills for smoking and cooking meat.

Today, the barbecue we enjoy is an amalgam of all these influences. But by the early 20th century, ideas about how barbecue should be done had diverged into a plethora of distinctive regional styles. 

Modern Regional Barbecue Styles

It seems simple. You add meat, heat, smoke and time, and they all come together to equal barbecue. But it’s not that simple. People in every corner of America have their own ideas about what defines barbecue, and how barbecue should be made.

For starters, what’s the proper meat? Traditionally in the South, pork was more widely available than beef. Plus, pigs required less care than cows, so they came to be the meat of choice.

Wild hogs abounded in Southern woods too, and barbecues of a whole hog often followed directly on the heels of a successful hunt. But just try to tell any of that to a Texan, whose regional barbecue traditions revolve around beef brisket. 

And what about the sauce? Should it be sweet? Maybe spicy? More vinegar-y, or tomato-based? How about Carolina gold or Alabama white sauce? Maybe we’ll just skip the sauce completely and go with a dry rub. That should make all you folks from Memphis happy. 

Let’s take a closer look at some of America’s most popular barbecue styles, starting with the ‘big four’ of Southern barbecue: Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City and Texas. 

Carolina Barbecue

Pulled Pork

Carolina barbecue is one of the oldest barbecue traditions we have. It has a couple different variations, but everybody agrees on one thing: Carolina barbecue is pork. As far as the differences go, they break down fairly evenly between the east and west parts of the North Carolina. 

Eastern North Carolina barbecue is all about the whole hog. After being slowly smoked over oak or hickory wood, the meat from the entire pig is chopped or ‘pulled’ and then mixed together. The sauce is thin, typically consisting of only vinegar and spices, and is mopped or basted onto the hog while it’s being smoked. A ketchup-and-vinegar barbecue sauce may be served on the side, but is never put on the meat while it cooks. 

The barbecue in Western North Carolina is usually referred to as Lexington barbecue (for the town of Lexington, NC) or as Piedmont barbecue (for the Piedmont region). In Western North Carolina, only the pork shoulder and ribs are generally barbecued, and the sauce, while vinegar-based, also contains varying amounts of tomato in the form of ketchup. 

Memphis Barbecue

Beale Street, Memphis

Memphis barbecue us based around pork ribs and barbecue pork sandwiches (i.e. pulled pork). Memphis barbecue purists tend to eschew sauces, instead insisting that the meat be smoked in a barbecue pit after being coated with a dry rub. The rub can be made up of up to 40 different spices, but is often a simple combination of garlic, paprika, black pepper and salt. 

But some allow a differentiation between ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ barbecue in the Memphis tradition. Wet ribs are brushed with a thin, tomato-based barbecue sauce before and after cooking, while dry ribs are prepared with the dry rub only. Sauce is often offered on the side, or in the case of a pulled pork sandwich, on top of the shredded meat with a serving of coleslaw.

Kansas City Barbecue

Homemade Barbeque Sauce

An offshoot of Memphis style barbecue, Kansas City barbecue embraces all kinds and cuts of meat—pork, beef, lamb, you name it. This likely dates back to the city’s status as meatpacking hub. Whatever the meat may be, it must be cooked very slowly over low heat.

The sauce is a thick, sticky, tomato-based sauce that is often quite spicy, as well as sweet and tangy. It often contains molasses, and may involve ingredients ranging from brown sugar and vinegar to Worcestershire sauce. Kansas City barbecue is usually served with fries. 

Texas Barbecue

Homemade Smoked Barbecue Beef Brisket

Texas is actually home to a wide variety of barbecue styles. After all, this giant state is practically a country of its own. But what most folks mean when they talk about Texas barbecue is the barbecue of Central Texas. Heavily influenced by the region’s German and Czech immigrants, Central Texas barbecue revolves around beef brisket, ribs and sausage.

Texas barbecue is slow cooked over hardwoods like pecan and hickory (or mesquite, more common in West Texas) and often involves little to no sauce or seasoning. If there is a sauce, it’s typically a thin and simple ‘mop sauce’ that is applied like a glaze and moistens the meat as it smokes. 

Other Regional Styles and Variations

South Carolina Gold

Much of South Carolina adheres to barbecue traditions similar to the Carolina barbecue of its northern neighbor. The exception is the interior portion of the state, roughly from Columbia to Charleston, where a mustard-based sauce often called Carolina gold is popular. The sauce is made with mustard, vinegar and brown sugar, and adds a tangy note barbecued pork ribs or pork shoulder. 

Alabama White Sauce

Most commonly served with barbecued chicken, Alabama white sauce is mayonnaise-based, and usually includes vinegar, black pepper and other spices. Most popular in the region surrounding Decatur, AL, white sauce is served alongside smoked barbecue chicken. In some cases, the whole chicken will be dunked in the sauce immediately after being pulled from the barbecue pit.

The Future of Barbecue

These days, we can look back on the history of barbecue and marvel at how far it has come, how it has changed, and how many influences came together to make it what it is today. We can also sink our teeth in and appreciate the simple joy it gives us, and maybe fire up the grill and see where we can take it next. As rooted in tradition as barbecue may be, one thing its history shows us is that it always has room to change and evolve.

Featured Image from Harriot, Thomas, Theodor De Bry, Johann Wechel, and Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia: of the commodities and of the nature and manners of the naturall inhabitants. Francoforti ad Moenvm, Typis I. Wecheli, svmtibvs vero T. de Bry, 1590. Pdf.

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