There’s no shortage of self-proclaimed barbecue experts. Some write blogs. Others have YouTube channels. There are even barbecue scholars who publish books on the topic under university press imprints. But does anyone really know where barbecue came from, and how America’s favorite (and maybe only) native culinary style gained its pride of place?
The short answer: not really.
Look up any web article on “the history of barbecue” and you’re likely to get statements to the effect that the word “barbecue” comes to us from the Caribbean by way of Spanish Conquistadors who learned of slow-cooking over a fire using a wooden frame from the Taino-Arawak people. The Spanish adopted the Haitian word barbacoa meaning “sacred fire pit” to describe this process and have used it since at least 1526, when it first appeared in a Spanish dictionary. Many attribute the origin of the modern word “barbecue” to the word barbacoa. It is equally likely that the word “barbecue” stems from the Taino-Arawak word “barbicu.” The Taino people inhabit what is today Hispaniola, the island home of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. What you won’t read quite as often is that the meats of choice were goat, deer, alligator, and possibly human. Sacred fire pit, indeed.
But the word “barbecue” has other roots, as well. The West African Hausa people used the word “babbake” to refer to a variety of processes involving cooking and fire. This explanation has a lot going for it. Particularly, the fact that a single word with myriad meanings came to define a past-time that is as fraught with ambiguity today as its origins in the distant past.
The fact is, salting, spicing and slow roasting meat is a nearly universal process, and one valuable worldwide not just to those in search of perfect flavor, but to those looking for ways to preserve meat in unforgiving climates. But what about American barbecue? Is it possible something so closely identified with our national culture is shared by every culture on earth?
Yes and no. Slow cooking over a controlled fire belongs exclusively to no one. However, what we call barbecue in the United States is ours, albeit by way of the West Africans, Jamaicans, and Haitians brought to our shores against their will. The story of American barbecue has its roots, like all things American, in many cultures, yet it was one of the most marginalized and mistreated that gave us the gift that so many love.
Barbecue in the United States, as almost anyone will tell you, is peculiarly Southern. And in the South, pork was the meat of choice. This stems back to the earliest continental colonies, specifically a failed Spanish colony founded in 1526 in what would become South Carolina. When their leader died and the colony foundered, the pigs they’d brought with them from the Old World ended up in the wild. The slaves of the Spaniards were taken in by the local Native American tribes, and together they hunted and barbecued the feral pigs (which still haunt the Southern forests).
This early American barbecue was cooked in pits dug by hand and covered with green wood. It was slow cooking extraordinaire, and very labor intensive. As time went on, slow cooking meat was adopted more and more by poor rural populations, and came to be the staple of festivals and celebrations. Black slaves in particular perfected the practice, and took it with them wherever they went. Eventually, their manner of eating—usually without utensils—was accepted by the European settlers who also grew to appreciate the flavor and consistency of slow roasted meat.
For a long time, barbecue became a way for blacks and whites to find common ground. Blacks, both before the Civil War and after, found plenty of occasion to dig pits and roast hogs, and their white neighbors were none too shy about inviting themselves over for dinner. One man, Columbus B. Hill, became famous in Denver, Colorado in the last third of the 19th century for setting up barbecue events to which tens of thousands of people came.
The shadow of Jim Crow put an end to that for decades. A series of laws were enacted and enforced that, among other things, mandated segregation in almost all areas of daily life. Under these inhumane restrictions, even the simple act of breaking bread with your fellow man was made illegal if your skin color differed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ostensibly put an end to such discrimination. While it didn’t magically end racism, it did make it legal for barbecue to be enjoyed together by all.
At this point, barbecue has been somewhat hijacked by suburban white populations, who often confuse true barbecue with throwing hot dogs on a gas grill (they’re not the same thing). While we don’t want to take anything away from anyone by any means, we did just want to remind everyone (including ourselves!) where the beautiful tradition of American barbecue came from, and felt there was no better time than Black History Month to do so.
Barbecue, at least historically, is hard work: digging pits, chopping wood, slaughtering and dressing animals, and tending to low-burning fires. The MAK lets you enjoy the fruits of those things without the excruciating, sweat-inducing labor that formerly constituted the high barrier to entry of our nation’s beloved past-time.