Trying to define barbecue is like trying to define America…no one definition can fit the bill…every part is different, ever one has an opinion, and, most certainly, those of us in the South believe we KNOW what barbeque is! We may not be able to accurately explain it, but we know it when we see it and more so when we taste it.
Where one barbeque lover sees a timeless tradition, another sees American history, and another, family recipes handed down for generations. There has been many an argument over who has the best barbeque and there is great pride attached to the word that represents this basic piece of Americana.
The original meaning of "barbeque" was to cook a whole animal in its entirety for a feast. Many believe the origin of the word lies in the French term barbe-a-que which means "from snout to tail" or "beard to tail." Others say barbeque is derived from barbecoa, Spanish for having to do with roasting or some say it is a Caribbean Indian word, “barbacoa” which was to cook with a wooden grill over a fire pit. This comes from history attributed to Christopher Columbus. Upon arriving in the Caribbean in 1492, Columbus discovered the Taino Native Americans cooking fish and wild game hung on a wooden structure over coals. Columbus described the barbecoa as a lattice framework made of saplings 2-3 feet high and used to hold meat above coals so it could cook, smoke, and dry. Columbus returned to Europe with this new cooking method and soon it was the popular way to prepare meats. After Columbus, de Soto explored Florida and brought with him pigs from Europe that quickly reproduced and spread throughout the southeast. The first BBQ on record was in 1540 in Tupelo, Mississippi. If this historical account is true, well…it was the English who first barbequed! No true Southerner will repeat that news!
Another school of thought is that the barbeque as we know it today originated in the Wild West when chuck wagon cooks had to come up with various ways to prepare the tough meat that the trail bosses provided them to cook for the cowboys on the drive. The cooks were given the “left-overs” from the herd and expected to present an acceptable meal. This meat was chewy and sinewy with little fat for flavor. So, the cooks would baste it with a sauce and cook it on a skewer over an open low-flame all day long to tenderize it. The slow-cooking, basted with sauce, would both soften the meat and add that smoky flavor that came to be known as BBQ.
The acceptable Southern term is “meat slow-cooked with smoke.” So, whether you spell it Barbeque, Barbecue, Barbaque, BBQ, B-B-Que, Bar-B-Que, Bar-B-Cue, ‘Cue, ‘Que, or just plain Q, it’s all good if it is done the Georgian way—slow-cooked at a low temperature for a long time over hickory wood. Along with the knowledge of slow-cooking comes the versatile way of serving it; no sauce (you add your own at the table), deeply browned (blackened) on the outside, tender on the inside; pulled, chopped or sliced. If you’re a true Southerner, you will want some “fat” mixed in for that original Southern taste. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
So, just as there are as varied appetites for this unique American phenomenon, there are varied ways to prepare it. Depending on where you live and what your memories bring to mind, barbeque becomes that personal domain of homespun nurture to the soul. I don’t believe there will ever be a “one-size fits all” when it comes to barbeque. It is an extremely personal experience that holds great pleasures in our minds.