How Barbecue Works


The Origins of Barbecue
This print shows early Native Americans preparing fish in the style of barbecue. Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
This print shows early Native Americans preparing fish in the style of barbecue. Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Part of the mythology and mystique of barbecue is that it's an American culinary invention. But barbecue's roots go back much further, to the ancient humans who discovered that cooking pieces of meat with a wood fire made it tastier and easier to eat. In 2007, Israeli archaeologists found what might be the world's oldest barbecue joint, a cave near Carmel where people butchered carcasses of wild cattle, deer and gazelle, and cooked their meat over wood fires 200,000 years ago [sources: Goldwyn, Shapira].

The ancient Greeks developed more sophisticated techniques, roasting meat basted with salt and wine on wooden spits high above the fire. This prevented the meat from burning, and allowed it to cook slowly and absorb smoke. As barbecue writer "Meathead" Goldwyn has noted, smoked meat not only tasted good, but it contained antimicrobial compounds and dehydrated the meat, making it last longer without spoiling. These latter qualities were extremely important in the days before refrigeration.

Modern American barbecuing's most direct roots go back to the Native American cooking techniques that Spanish explorers and conquerors encountered in the Western Hemisphere. The indigenous people that Christopher Columbus found on the island of Hispanola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1492 slow-cooked meat on wooden frames over an indirect fire.

In 1540, Hernando de Soto was a guest at a native feast of succulent barbecued pork [source: Geiling]. The explorer came back to Europe describing the delights of something he called barbacoa, which seems to have been a Spanish version of a word from the language of the Taino tribe of Native Americans. No one is exactly sure what Taino word the Spanish mistranslated [source: Goldwyn].

Native people on the southeastern coast of North America also had barbecues, and English colonists from the Carolinas all the way up to New England imitated their techniques [source: Moss]. The first mention of a barbecue feast was a 1706 narrative about a banquet involving English colonists in Jamaica roasting three pigs "in the West Indian manner." By the 1700s, cooking barbecue was such a popular pastime that George Washington noted attending six barbecues in his diary [sources: Moss, Collins].

Although barbecue was popular throughout colonial America, it became a particularly big deal in the South, where a lot of farmers raised hogs. Hogs were low-maintenance animals that could be set loose to forage in the woods. Those hogs had leaner, tougher meat, and barbecue's long, slow cooking was a good way to tenderize it. Further, the white people who lived in the South tended to hail from the south and west of England, which had a culture of roasting and broiling meat. Other parts of the U.S. preferred baking or broiling.

Working a barbecue pit requires long hot hours over a smoky fire. In the antebellum South, in the 1800s, the job was often given to an enslaved African to prepare barbecue for the whole plantation, both white and black. Africans too, had the tradition of spit-roasting meat in their native countries and contributed a lot to the cooking styles of the traditional Southern American barbecue [sources: Moss, Geiling].