Barbecue (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
BARBECUE. While meat grilled over a charcoal or wood fire is common to many cultures around the world, American barbecue is distinguished from these other dishes because of the cuts of meat it traditionally involves, the cooking techniques it employs, and the definitive sauces and side dishes that accompany it. Barbecue is cooked slowly at temperatures ranging from about 175 to 300°F with more smoke than fire. The meat involved varies from region to region. Traditional barbecue most often is pork, beef, lamb, or goat. However, chicken is also a popular barbecue meat.
The word "barbecue" is generally thought to have evolved from the word "barbacoa," which first appeared in Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo's 1526 book De La Historia General y Natural de Las Indias. He describes the technique of skewering meat on sticks and then roasting it over a pit dug in the ground. The writing of Bernardino de Sahaún, who accompanied Hernán Cortés in his conquests of Mexico, uses the word "barbacoa" in references to meats roasted under the ground. References to barbecue cooking technique are also found in the 1698 memoirs of Père Labat, a French priest who wrote about his travels in the West Indies.
Several countries have culinary traditions that, to greater or lesser extents, could be called barbecue. For example, in India, meats are often roasted over charcoal in tandoor, a clay oven. In Jamaica, pork and chicken are barbequed "jerk" style over a slow fire of wood from the all-spice tree. In Mexico, whole goats are often butterflied, skewered, and cooked over a slow fire. In South Africa, the word braai is used to refer to the metal or brick pit over which meat is grilled, or to the event at which such meat is served. In Cuba, pit-roasted pigs are the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. In Brazil, churrasco refers to the technique of cooking meat on skewers over open pits. That country's churrascaria restaurants are famous for their all-you-can eat style of service. American barbecue enthusiasts generally refer to the technique involved in cooking steaks, hamburgers, or fish over an open fire as "grilling" rather than "barbecueing."
The word "barbecue" can be employed as a verb when it refers to the cooking technique. It is also an adjective, as in the phrase "barbecued ribs." And it is a noun when it refers to the gathering at which barbecue is served, as in the sentence, "We are going to a barbecue." Barbecue is important in the American culinary lexicon for two main reasons. First, it takes place outdoors, the cooking is often a public if not a communal event, and it is closely associated with family gatherings and such holidays as Independence Day and Labor Day. Second, barbecue is closely associated with particular regions of the country. The cultural identity of those regions and the people who live in them are inextricable from the style of barbecue served there.
Several theories have been advanced about how roasted meat evolved into American barbecue. The writings of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington include references to barbecue. The event is clearly related to the pig roasts common in Great Britain. While pig roasts may have been common in New England, barbecue did not take root there. Rather, in the eastern United States barbecue is most closely associated with states in which enslaved Africans did much of the cooking. Many of these people were transported from Africa via the Caribbean islands, where they may have learned some of the barbecue techniques of Native Americans. Mexican-Americans continue to use the barbacoa technique described in the writings of Bernardino de Sahagún today.
Barbecue is primarily associated with the American South and is cooked and eaten by most of the region's ethnic groups. But the food was taken to other regions by African-Americans as they fled the South for factory work in the Midwest and other regions in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Barbecue ultimately became common in the area from Virginia over to Kansas, down to Texas, and across to Florida and in African-American enclaves in California.
Barbecue geography can be tricky in that often barbecue styles do not conform to the lines on maps. In the Carolinas, Georgia, and other parts of the Southeast, barbecue means pork, either whole hogs or pork shoulders, generally cooked over hickory or oak wood. It is then chopped, sliced, or pulled and served on buns. Sauces vary widely within the region. Parts of South Carolina are unique in that they use mustard as the basis of their sauce. Parts of North Carolina and Kentucky are similarly unique in that they use a thin sauce that tastes like Worcestershire sauce. The most popular sauce throughout the Southeast is a thin vinegar-based recipe flecked with flakes of dried red pepper and sometimes sweetened with sugar. The most popular barbecue sauce in the country, a thicker, sweeter, tomato-based sauce, is also popular in parts of the Southeast.
Though coleslaw and hush puppies are common side dishes throughout the Southeast, the definitive side dishes are regional stews. In South Carolina and parts of eastern Georgia barbecue is often accompanied by rice and hash, a stew made with some combination of pork and pork organ meats. In Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, Brunswick stew is served. The ingredients in this dish vary considerably and can include wild game, corn, lima beans, potatoes, and tomatoes, depending on the locale. In Kentucky, where mutton is the preferred meat for barbecuing, burgoo, a stew similar to Brunswick stew, is the popular accompaniment.
In Tennessee the basic barbecue dish is pork served on a bun with mayonnaise coleslaw. There as in many parts of the barbecue belt significant differences exist between urban and rural barbecue. In urban areas the sauces tend to be thicker and sweeter, and barbecued ribs are a standard part of the menu.
The distinctions in Texas barbecue are based largely on proximity to Mexico. Barbacoa, cow's head cooked in underground pits with mesquite wood and served with salsa on tortillas, is a common Sunday morning meal. While beef brisket is the standard barbecue meat in most of Texas, people along the border often refer to this as "American barbecue" to distinguish it from barbacoa. In southern Texas pinto beans generally accompany barbecue, and the meat is usually seasoned with cumin and chili powder. Eastern Texas barbecue is primarily beef brisket, but baked beans are more common than pinto beans there. Potato salad often replaces coleslaw as a side dish in eastern Texas, and spicing of the meat is influenced less by Mexican flavors.
In Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri, where the southeastern and southwestern traditions merge, beef and pork are equally popular. The sauces in those places tend to be sweet, thick, ketchup-based recipes. In Chicago and other cities where African Americans settled, pork ribs are the staple rather than whole hogs or pork shoulders.
Unlike most home cooking, barbecue is generally cooked by men. Sociologists have several theories for this. Men may be attracted to the fact that barbecue is cooked outdoors and in public rather than in a closed kitchen. Also at the root of barbecue is a primitive technique, often involving chopping wood, taming a fire, and butchering large cuts of meat. These tasks are traditionally viewed as masculine, and the technique is passed down from father to son.
With an increasing emphasis on faster, simpler cooking, some commercial establishments have replaced wood and charcoal pits with electric or gas ovens. Additionally the popularity of barbecue sauce as a condiment has meant that sometimes any meat slathered in a sweet, ketchup-based sauce is improperly called barbecue.
See also United States, subentries on African American Foodways and The South.
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Lolis Eric Elie