The History of BBQ: How It All Started
September 9, 2021 by Sasha Skerla
Barbecue was not invented in America. Humans did not even invent it. At least not the humans that live on Earth now. Homo Erectus invented it (I can hear you giggling, Paul), a proto—human that lived on earth even before the Neanderthals. And it’s after the Neanderthals that the first Homo sapiens (us) came by and stole the technology from them.
But it was perfected as an art form in the southern states of the USA. It is here where barbecue became more than just a way to preserve meat — it became a way of life, a culture, a philosophy. And thanks to that commitment, to the intense strive to make it better, perfect, to the rivalry between towns, families, restaurants, chefs — because all of that barbecue became the ultimate American cuisine, the greatest platter that America brings to the world table, to the international feast.
I know, I know — pizza was perfected in the same way in New York, from a humble onion pie that the Italians stole from the Greeks — but it is not the same thing. Pizza is just one dish (although the number one food in the world). Barbecue is much, much more. It is the most ancient cuisine in the world, it is what made us human (higher energy received from roasted meats allowed for the larger human sapiens brain to evolve), it is what brings people together, it is a way of communication between neighbors, friends — it is a pride and a statement. Barbecue is a religion.
What is BBQ?
Today, barbecue (or smok’ ‘gich or byhkj, as the Chinese say) is popular in many places around the world. What you call barbecue might not be what you find in the original American barbecue tradition — what Americans call a slow-smoked whole animal is a fantasy for many other cultures. But because of the history of American barbecue, a cultural, culinary, and gastronomic heritage, our cuisine is strongly influenced by this tradition and the best part is that there is room for everyone to try it! The First BBQs The first barbecue recipes are associated with the ancient Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations, around 7,000 BC. Unlike our food, these cultures did not use animal fat or lipids as fat. They used a thin rice bran oil. But they smoked meat at high smoking temperatures.
There are two main ingredients for barbecue: meat and smoke.
Everything else can be removed and changed with something else — but meat (yes, fish included) and smoke have to remain in the recipe if we want to call it barbecue.
Now, there are a thousand ways to impact smoke taste on the meat. And there are a hundred different types of wood (and also coal, grass, leaves) that people around the world use.
You can find the first design for a barbecue grill in the Hebrew Old Testament, written 1500 years before Christ. Moses himself instructs his people how God wants the smoker to be built, with fleshhooks, ash pans, shovels, basins, a grate, how to make it portable, and how to use it. Of course, Moses claims that God wants this rig to be constructed for animal sacrifice — as an offering to God. But, later, in chapter 29, Aaron (Moses’s brother) says that all God really wanted was the smell — the scent of the burned meat — and he and his priests proceeded to eat most of the sacrificed animals.
There are instructions (Leviticus 1) on how to smoke (make offerings) for a bull, turtledoves, pigeons, sheep, goats, fruits, corn, and bread as well.
You can find stories about barbecue interwoven with the history of every nation on earth. The Chinese were (and still are) fond of slow-roasting pigs and ducks, Europeans loved their sausages, northerners their smoked salmon… If there could be anything that could unite all the world somehow and find a common theme to talk to — it would be slow cooking over fire.
The word barbecue comes from the world (probably Spanish) barbacoa. Where that word comes from — it is not clear. What is known is that it was first used after the Spanish invaded the Americas and came in contact with Native Americans. Some suggest it was originally a word from the Arawak tribe. What it described — in the beginning — was the wooden rack on which the meat was placed over an indirect fire, to be smoked and slowly cooked.
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One of the first written mentions of barbacoa, unfortunately, included a roasting human. When the Spanish governor of Cuba sent a search party to Tampa Bay, Florida, (to save some other previously lost party) in the spring of 1536 — one member of the search party, Juan Ortiz, was apparently captured by the Ozita tribe and sentenced to be slowly roasted alive on the barbacoa. The chief daughter felt pity for Juan and saved him from roasting. He survived and lived with the tribe for years, later becoming an interpreter for the famous explorer Hernando de Soto.
The same DeSoto was also involved in the first recorded barbecue (barbacoa) feast — on March 25th 1540, after invading a village in (now) Georgia and stealing from Native Americans venison and turkey that was roasting on a “barbacoa” device. Two months later, they were happy to add to their travel log that they found another feast going on after they invaded another village. This time they feasted on roasted corn and small dogs. Yes. Small dogs. With corn. I am not making this up as I go.
From there on, Barbacoa entered the Spanish language and history, and they started to refine it and change it. How it came from a rack, griddle roasting to mean what it mostly means now — cows head or goat or pig wrapped in leaves and buried under the fire (mostly used in Mexico and Hawaii) — nobody knows.
How BBQ Came to America
The story of how we got barbecue may be as old as the island of Texas itself. Humans first came to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, now known as the Gulf of Mexico, which forms the west coast of Mexico. After the initial settlers (Homo sapiens, probably) of what is now known as Texas, explorers thought they had found a nice warm place to set up a new home. But it wasn’t long before the harsh, unforgiving environment started to hit the senses of the settlers and animals in the area. It was no longer a nice warm place, not only because the climate and its soil was changing, but because of all the things that had to be dealt with — and this is when people started cooking BBQ, but also due to the fact that there were many types of predators around them. The settlers needed something to protect themselves from these creatures, so they began hunting for food by the fire. They would start fires by rubbing two sticks together or using flint rocks to strike sparks against each other. These early hunters used their newly acquired skill at starting fires to cook meat over an open flame. This method of cooking became popular among the people who lived on this land and eventually spread across North America.
How Barbecue Became a Southern Tradition
One of the earliest accounts of an American cook is in 1500s Mexico. The first recipe ever published in the book Apoqui de Fama y Medicina Mexicana (1549) calls for pork belly, onions, peppers, and salt. And since that time, the art and science of BBQ have flourished and evolved. But the fundamentals of BBQ were always there. The most common ingredient in BBQ is meat. Canned or fresh pork belly, pork ribs, pork shoulder or any other type of meat is good. It must be grilled. The most common method of cooking a BBQ is on a griddle. You can also cook a BBQ on a Weber or a B.B.Q. smoker. And the way the meat is cooked is as important as the kind of meat. To cook a piece of meat well on a griddle or smoker, it is best to have the grill at the highest setting, close to high heat.
Barbecue sauce is usually made out of vinegar, sugar, spices and sometimes tomatoes. There are different kinds of sauces: sweet, spicy, tangy, etc. Some use ketchup instead of tomato paste. Most recipes call for some form of liquid smoke. Liquid Smoke is basically wood chips soaked in water and then boiled down into a thick syrup. When you buy liquid smoke, make sure it says “wood” in the ingredients list. If it doesn’t say “wood,” don’t buy it!
Barbecue is a true taste of Southern culture. It is a part of the America we know and love. And you know what’s interesting? Because we love it so much, we also do a decent job of promoting and celebrating our food culture, both native and cultural. If you want to learn more,