Let’s talk barbecue

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By Marialisa Calta


It’s a huge subject: barbecue; one that has spawned dozens of articles and books, commentaries and doctoral theses, not to mention family feuds and barroom brawls. Does barbecue mean pork or beef? Is it really found in the South alone? Does the word only apply to smoking meats, as opposed to grilling them? Should it be spelled barbecue or Bar-B-Q? These are the issues that keep barbecue historians up at night. The rest of us, however, can happily fire up our grills, slap some chicken down, and call it an evening.

Certainly, the cooking of meat over fire is an ancient process, dating back at least 250,000 years. But the word barbecue did not come into common parlance until the early 1500s, when Spanish explorers happened upon the Carib Indians of the West Indies cooking and smoking meat and fish on raised wooden platforms set over fire pits. The platforms were called barbacaos, a word that, many food historians agree, morphed into barbecue. (Of course, being a feisty bunch, some food historians do not agree, and there is another theory that the word barbecue came from the French phrase barbe a queue, meaning ‘from head to tail,’ and referring to the manner in which animals were cooked.)

What distinguishes American barbecue — as opposed to, say, the roasting of meat described in a Homeric epic — is the controlled use of spice and smoke, and, according to Steven Raichlen’s BBQ USA, the use of a pit and a raised grill grate. In the warm climates of South America, the Caribbean, and the American South, the spice and smoke were essential for preserving meat and fish and keeping it from spoiling.

Another element of true barbecue is people; barbecuing is a social event, whether for your family of four or a gathering of hundreds. In colonial Virginia, barbecues became popular at political rallies; George Washington was said to be a fan, and he once made a diary entry chronicling a festive three-day cookout.

These, to my mind, are the barbecue basics: fire, smoke, a raised grill, meat or fish, spices, and other people gathered in the great outdoors. Indoor, electric contact grills don’t count (sorry, George Foreman). Fruits or veggies — even if they are cooked on an outdoor fire — may be tasty, but they don’t count either. That’s plain old grilling, not ’cue.

Within this broad definition, there is still a lot of room for dissent. A Texas brisket pitmaster will go to the mat with a Carolina pig roaster over which type of barbecue truly represents the highest aspects of the art. A ribs cook will forever claim the superiority of dry ribs (cooked without sauce) over the wet ribs (slathered in sauce) popular in Memphis. Decades-long disputes still rage over whether a fire should be built of hickory, applewood, or mesquite, or whether sauce should be vinegar or tomato-based. I leave these questions for the experts, and will happily volunteer to be a taste-tester in any dispute.

The grill first came to American homes with the growth of the charcoal briquette industry, started by Henry Ford, of automobile fame. Although charcoal itself is ancient, the process to manufacture it economically was developed in the 1920s and Ford, who had wood scraps left over from the making of parts for the Model T, was a thrifty sort who turned the scraps into briquettes.

But what were briquettes without a place to burn them? Original home barbecues were metal braziers or sturdy brick or stone constructions that dominated the backyard. Then came George Stephen, a worker for Weber Brothers Metal Works near Chicago, who one day sliced in half a metal nautical buoy made by his company, stuck a couple of grates in it and lit a fire, poking holes in the top half to serve as air vents. The rest, as they say, is history, and today the basic black, three-legged Weber grill is as recognizable as — as the Chicago Tribune put it — a VW Beetle, a Radio Flyer, or a bottle of Chanel No. 5. In the 1960s, gas utility companies introduced the first gas grills; Weber-Stephen (Stephen bought the company in 1958) came out with a model in 1971. Nowadays folks can spend thousands of dollars on gas grills, some decked out with mini-fridges, rotisseries, infrared burners, and warming drawers.

There are the traditional holidays — Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day — and the less traditional, including Thanksgiving and St. Lawrence Day. I add Thanksgiving because I, like many home cooks, have found that roasting a turkey on my covered grill not only produces a gorgeous, great-tasting bird, but saves on oven space, leaving room for the pies and baked sweet potatoes. St. Lawrence Day, August 10, is celebrated by those who consider the second century martyr to be the patron saint of barbecue. Lawrence, who was killed for disobeying (and, while he was at it, thumbing his nose at) the Roman authorities, was said to have been roasted on a spit (although some Church scholars now believe he was beheaded) and to have said at some point during the roasting: “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.” His symbol, in religious iconography, is a latticed metal grate or gridiron. While it may seem a bit grisly to celebrate the burning of a saint with the grilling of some meat, the point is that some people will look for any reason to barbecue, while others need no reason at all. Trade association statistics hold that more than half of grill-owning Americans use their grill twelve months of the year. CD

Marialisa Calta