The History of The American Barbecue

The roads of the Southern United States are lined with a succession of grinning pigs, advertising the availability of barbecue in countless restaurants. The origins of barbecue in the South, however, are traceable to a period long before the smiling pig became a fixture on Southern roadsides. The etymology of the term is vague, Bon Appetit magazine blithely informs its readers that the word comes from an extinct tribe in Guyana who enjoyed "cheerfully spit roasting captured enemies." The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to Haiti, and others claim (somewhat implausibly) that "barbecue" actually comes from the French phrase "barbe a queue", meaning "from head to tail." Proponents of this theory point to the whole-hog cooking method espoused by some barbecue chefs. Tar Heel magazine posits that the word "barbecue" comes from a nineteenth century advertisement for a combination whiskey bar, beer hall, pool establishment and purveyor of roast pig, known as the BAR-BEER-CUE-PIG.


It was also widely thought that the word barbecue come from "barbacoa" which is Spanish for a Taino word which means a rack made of wood on which meat is roasted over flames. According to normally reliable references, the Taino, indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida, were extinct by about 1610. But it has now been established that they still survive today.

The Taino say the word barbecue comes from the Taino language. "Ba" from Baba (Father), "Ra" from Yara (Place) "Bi" from Bibi (Beginning) "Cu" from Guacu (The Sacred Fire). Or, "The beginning place of the sacred fire father." they further explained that, "Taino Barabicoa" means "The stick stand with 4 legs and many sticks of wood on top to place the cooking meat." And that, "Taino Barabicu" means "the sacred fire pit".

Chief Peter Guanikeyu Torres, the Taino Elder is believed to be the great grandson of the late Taino Chieftain of the district of Jatibonico, an area in Puerto Rico known as Orocobix. He is President of a national Native American non-profit organisation called the Taino Inter-Tribal Council. In November, 1993, the Taino renounced 500 years of oppression and over 300 years of alleged extinction and declared themselves a whole and viable people. And modern too. The Taino can be reached on the Internet at:


According to Chief Guanikeyu, the Timucua, Guacara and Calusa tribes of Florida and the South-eastern United States are also Taino who migrated from the Caribbean with their culture. It is looking like the puzzle of the word barbecue may have been solved, and originated somewhere in the Carolinas in the USA.

Barbecue Before the Civil War

The history of barbecue itself, aside from its murky etymological origins, is more clear. For several reasons, the pig became an omnipresent food staple in the South. Pigs were a low-maintenance and convenient food source for Southerners. In the pre-Civil War period, Southerners ate, on average, five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef. Pigs could be put out to root in the forest and caught when food supply became low. These semi-wild pigs were tougher and stringier than modern pigs, but were a convenient and popular food source. Every part of the pig was utilised, the meat was either eaten immediately or cured for later consumption, and the ears, organs and other parts were transformed into edible delicacies. Pig slaughtering became a time for celebration, and the neighbourhood would be invited to share in the largesse. The traditional Southern barbecue grew out of these gatherings.

At the end of the colonial period, the practice of holding neighbourhood barbecues was well-established, but it was in the fifty years before the Civil War that the traditions associated with large barbecues became entrenched. Plantation owners regularly held large and festive barbecues, including "pig picking's" for slaves. In this pre-Civil War period, a groundswell of regional patriotism made pork production more and more important.

Relatively little of the pork produced was exported out of the South, and hog production became a way for Southerners to create a self-sufficient food supply, Southern pork for Southern patriots. Hogs became fatter and better cared for, and farmers began to feed them corn to plump them up before slaughter. The stringy and tough wild pigs of the colonial period became well-fed hogs. Barbecue was still only one facet of pork production, but more hogs meant more barbecues. In the nineteenth century, barbecue was a feature at church picnics and political rallies as well as at private parties.

A barbecue was a popular and relatively inexpensive way to lobby for votes, and the organisers of political rallies would provide barbecue, lemonade, and usually a bit of whiskey. These gatherings were also an easy way for different classes to mix. Barbecue was not a class- specific food, and large groups of people from every stratum could mix to eat, drink and listen to stump speeches.


Journalist Jonathan Daniel's, writing in the mid-twentieth century, maintained that "Barbecue is the dish which binds together the taste of both the people of the big house and the poorest occupants of the back end of the broken-down barn. Political and church barbecues were among the first examples of this phenomenon. Church barbecues, where roasted pig supplemented the covered dishes prepared by the ladies of the congregation, were a manifestation of the traditional church picnic in many Southern communities. Church and political barbecues are still a vital tradition in many parts of the South.



Barbecue Restaurants

At the beginning of the twentieth century, barbecue appeared in a new venue, that of the barbecue restaurant. After the South went from a rural-agricultural region to a more urban and industrial area, grocery stores provided pig meat, agricultural fairs replaced festive pig killings, and the barbecue restaurant took over the time-consuming task of slow-cooking pork. Usually, these restaurants grew out of a simple barbecue pit where the owner sold barbecue to take away. Many of the pit men only opened on weekends, working (usually on a farm) during the week and tending the pit on weekends. The typical barbecue shack consisted of a bare concrete floor surrounded by a corrugated tin roof and walls (Johnson 9). Soon, stools and tables were added, and the ubiquitous pig adorned the outside of the building.

Few pit men owned more than one restaurant-- the preparation of the pig required almost constant attention, and few expert pit men were willing to share the secret of their sauce preparations. The advent of the automobile gave the barbecue shack a ready-made clientele, travellers would stop at the roadside stands for a cheap and filling meal. As the twentieth century progressed, barbecue pits grew and prospered, evolving into three distinct types. According to barbecue scholar Jonathan Bass, the three kinds of barbecue restaurants are black-owned, upscale urban white, and white "joints" (more akin to honky-tonk bars). These racial denotations, however, do not mean that barbecue restaurants catered to a specific racial clientele.

Good barbecue drew (and draws) barbecue fans of every colour and class. Perhaps because much of its trade consisted of take-out orders, the barbecue restaurant was an interracial meeting place long before the forced integration of the 1950's and 1960's. When these restaurants first appeared, many were owned by black Southerners, and "whites, in a strange reversal of Jim Crow traditions, made stealthy excursions for take-out orders". In the 1950's and 1960's, much of this comity was lost. Many barbecue joints became segregated by race. Barbecue has even made it into the annals of legal history, with the desegregation battles at Ollie's Barbecue in Alabama and Maurice's Piggy Park in Columbia providing often-cited case law as well as a stain on the fascinating history of barbecue. In the case Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, the court ruled that Maurice Bessinger's chain of five barbecue restaurants unlawfully discriminated against African-American patrons.

The varied history of barbecue reflects the varied history of the South. Sometimes shameful, but usually interesting, the history of barbecue can be seen an emblem of Southern history. For the past seventy-five years, the barbecue joint has flourished. Although local specialities and the time-intensive nature of barbecue preparation have insured that real barbecue (as opposed to defrosted and microwaved meat) will never be a staple at chain restaurants, barbecue has endured. Aside from its succulent taste, delicious sauces and the inimitable, smoky atmosphere of an authentic barbecue joint, barbecue has become a Southern icon, a symbol that is cherished by Southerners. Without the racist subtext of the Stars and Bars, the anachronistic sexism of the Southern belle, or the bland ennui of a plate of grits, barbecue has become a cultural icon for Southerners, of every race, class and sex.


Barbecue By Region

Barbecue is a cherished example of the cultural heritage of the South to most Southerners, but within the region, debate as to the nature of barbecue rages on. While barbecue-loving Southerners agree that the "Northern" definition of barbecue a cookout in the back garden is ludicrous, barbecue aficionados also like to argue about what constitutes true Southern barbecue. State by state, and even town by town, no method is exactly alike. The one non-debatable component of barbecue is pork, and the South is bounded by the parameters of the "barbecue belt" (Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina). With apologies to the dedicated barbecue chefs of Owensboro and south-western Texas, Kentucky's misbegotten notion of mutton, and the beef and mesquite of Texas simply do not qualify as barbecue, and these regions will not be closely examined here.

Why do the regional differences in pig roasting merit attention? Barbecue is emblematic of a lot of things in the South despite intra-regional differences, barbecue is barbecue all over the Southern United States. We may argue about which kind is the best barbecue, but very few people assert that the different types are not part of a vital (and delicious) Southern tradition. Despite the Americanisation of Dixie, the South has maintained a distinct regional flavour that makes it special, different from any other part of the United States.

In tracing the differences between the different types of pork barbecue, we demonstrate one example of how, despite geographical disparities, encroaching national homogeneity, and bitter intra-regional disputes, the South continues to cherish those parts of itself which make it peculiarly Southern. This established, our attention turns to the differences between the many types of pork barbecue. These are many and hotly contested. Differences can be gauged by comparing cooking styles, serving methods, side dishes preferred by each camp, and (most contentious of all) sauces.

Barbecue in the South

Much of the variation in barbecue methodology and saucing in Southern barbecue can be explained by its geographical migrations. After originally appearing on the East Coast, barbecue began travelling West, picking up permutations along the way. Spanish colonists spread the cooking technology, but the agriculture of each region added its own twist. The simple vinegar sauces of the East Coast were supplanted by the sweet tomato sauce of Memphis and the fiery red Texas swab. In western Kentucky, mutton was substituted for pork, and the cattle ranchers of Texas used barbecue techniques for slow-cooking beef (with these innovations, south-western Texans and western Kentuckians put themselves irrevocably outside the "barbecue belt"). There are several main regions of barbecue saucery in the South. Each region has its own secret sauces, with much intra-regional variation. This "barbecue belt" shares the same tradition of slow-cooking the meat, but diverges widely in sauces and side dishes.


Barbecue on the East Coast

In eastern North Carolina, the meat is chopped or sliced pig and the sauce is peppery vinegar. Traditional side dishes include coleslaw and hush puppies (perhaps a carry-over from the area's many seafood restaurants). These hush puppies are light and oval-shaped. The area of North Carolina west of Raleigh uses the same type of meat, but douses it in a sauce rich with vinegar and tomatoes. Western North Carolinians eat barbecue with bread and sometimes Brunswick stew, a stew made with vegetables, chicken and sometimes game. Further south, in South Carolina and Georgia, the pig is still chopped or sliced, but it is doused in a yellow mustard-based sauce. In much of South Carolina, barbecue is served alongside light bread, coleslaw, and "hash" with rice. Hash is made of stewed organ meats. In this region, the skin of the pig is often removed and fried separately. (This delicacy should not be confused with the pre-packaged pork rinds popularised by George Bush). In Georgia, Brunswick stew often appears

Barbecue in the Central South

As the barbecue aficionado travels further west, pork remains the meat of choice, but it is served "pulled" rather than chopped. Pulled pork is slow-cooked, shredded by hand into succulent threads of meat, then doused with sauce. The pulled pig region, centred around Memphis, Tennessee, usually serves a sweet tomato sauce flavoured with pepper and molasses. Because Memphis is a port city, the creators of barbecue sauces in this area had a larger repertoire of ingredients from which to choose. Molasses was shipped up-river, and became a popular seasoning. The popularity of the "pulled" serving method has resulted in the appearance of "pulled chicken" on several chain barbecue restaurant menus. Pulled chicken is reminiscent of the Northern concept of barbecue as backyard activity, and the purist should avoid it. Barbecue joints serving Memphis style barbecue usually serve it alongside coleslaw, cornbread, and sometimes French fries. Memphis barbecue is a term that encompasses both pulled pork and slow- cooked pork ribs. This ribs are either basted with sauce or rubbed with a mixture of tangy spices before pit cooking.

In Alabama, most sauces are also red, but a bit spicier than those served in Tennessee. Pulled and chopped pork is offered, as well as slabs of ribs. In Arkansas, the sauces vary. Because the state borders Tennessee, Texas, and several other states, one can find a wide variety of barbecue styles and sauces in Arkansas. Side dishes can include baked beans, coleslaw, and potato chips. On the western side, Arkansas borders Texas, and beef barbecue is more prevalent.

After examining the many types of barbecue, it is easy to wonder, "why on earth is slow-cooked pig a Southern icon ?" Although it is different all over the South, and though it is a homely and unassuming pork product, barbecue has assumed heroic proportions in the cultural iconography of the South. One reason for this is the regional food ways endemic to the Southern United States. The pig has always been a crucial facet of the Southern diet, and a study of Southern food ways helps to explicate the importance of the barbecue.


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