Almost everyone loves barbecue, but few people know the origin of barbecue and its history in the United States.
I didn’t either until I became a barbecue fanatic and became interested in more than just judging and cooking barbecue. By barbecue I’m referring to meat cooked low & slow over indirect heat; not grilling where meat is cooked directly over high heat.
While barbecue is considered American cooking cuisine, the actual origin of barbecue comes from an island nation.
The origin of barbecue is credited to the Taino Indians of the Caribbean islands.* European explorers from a number of countries encountered these natives during their voyages and noticed them smoking meat on wooden sticks over an open pit. This cooking method they adopted and brought with them when they came to the new world.
The English word "Barbecue" is originally credited to the Taino Indians as well, via the Spanish explorers. It’s said to be derived circa 1660 from the Spanish word barbacoa, which means “a raised frame of sticks”.**
When the European explorers came to the new world they settled on the Eastern seaboard. Therefore, barbecue had its roots in the New England and Southern states of America. Barbecue initially took hold most notably in the states of Massachusetts and Virginia.* In Virginia it was improved and migrated further south into the Carolinas, Kentucky,
Tennessee, Alabama, and so on; eventually becoming a mainstay cuisine of the South.
In the beginning barbecue was whatever meat could be caught, everything from pigs to chickens to rabbits to squirrels. After a time, barbecue was commonly known to be pork in the most of the country; with the exception of beef in Texas and mouton in Kentucky. This was because pigs were first brought to America by Christopher Columbus and they thrived in the wilds of the north and south. In addition to being in abundance, pigs were meaty animals, had short gestation periods, had large liters, and were slaughter-ready quickly.* Thus, making pork the perfect barbecue meat.
Barbecues (the events) themselves began as special social or political meals, rather than everyday meals cooked for the family and friends. The low and slow method of cooking meat over open pits was done for debates and rallies for political campaigns, national holidays, when soldiers left for war, and at special local celebrations. In pre and immediate- post antebellum America barbecue was almost always prepared by African Americans.
Also in the beginning the barbecued meat wasn’t what it is today. Often it was undercooked, tasteless, or raw.* The social gathering of a community was more important than the food itself. However, Americans were learning, experimenting, and perfecting the cooking method, as we had the resources and technologies the Caribbean natives lacked. And over the year next century barbecue became a delicacy in America.
Over the years, particular regions developed a barbecue identity based on the particular flavor and food preferences of the territory. The four major regions that emerged were the ones we recognize today: North Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis and Texas. Different types of sauces developed in these regions; vinegar-based, tomato-based, and mustard-based. Additionally, side dishes served with barbecue also developed in particular states based on flavor palettes; in addition to the different styles of beans, cole slaw and cornbread. The more unique examples of these are
Hash (a thick gravy of slowly cooked pig meat & pig organs) served in South Carolina, Brunswick Stew in Virginia and Georgia, and Burgoo (a thick, highly seasoned soup/stew made of game & vegetables) in Kentucky.*
Barbecue evolved in big strides in the decades following the Civil War. After the war many barbecue stands sprang up along road sides through the South, mostly run by freed men.* These men knew how to cook good barbecue, and it was an industrious way to make a living as free men in the depressed, reconstructionist Southern states.
A few of these “barbecue men” who enhanced the art of cooking barbecue in America were Henry Perry in Kansas City (who was ironically born in Memphis) and John Blackwelder in Salisbury, North Carolina.*** These men taught their craft to others people, and some of those other people would eventually open some of the most famous barbecue restaurants in America.
As the barbecue stands became successful, there was a demand for more stands, and they grew in number.
Barbecue grew in popularity and by the turn of the 20th century was consumed now as everyday food, instead of just for special occasions. So, the need to feed more people at these locations led to the rise of barbecue restaurants.
Barbecue restaurants emerged in the late 1920’s and 1930s. The stands that lined the roads that were successful many times were converted into restaurants at that site or by purchasing a building at another location. Other people learned how to barbecue and opened restaurants of their own. Barbecue transformed from a mobile, take-out food to a sit-down and enjoy out food.
There are actually a few Southern barbecue restaurants established back in the mid-1920’s that are still in business today. Sprayberry’s in Newnan, Georgia and McClard’s in Hot Springs, Arkansas are two examples.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s backyard barbecuing (and grilling) came into vogue, and barbecue in America evolved even further. The social aspect of barbecue was reintroduced in the American way of life. Entertaining with barbecues
at family celebrations, gatherings with friends, block parties, or just for the fun of it on the weekend became fashionable. Additionally, new equipment was being developed. Two significant pieces of equipment introduced during the 1960’s were the Weber kettle grill and the gas grill - using gas as a cooking fuel option to charcoal and wood.
Both grills made it easier for people to barbecue at home on a regular basis.
Early barbecue sauces were mostly thin with a lot of vinegar and spices like today’s Eastern North Carolina sauces. Traditional barbecue sauces gained prominence around the early 1900’s and commercial sauces from a few companies have been around since the 1940s. However, it was Kansas City’s Dr. Rich Davis who revolutionized the industry. In 1977 he introduced his KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce, which became very successful and made sauce a “must” for barbecue in America. Even in Memphis, Tennessee where hometown purists eat their ribs dry, sauce became readily available and used.
In the 1970’s organized barbecue contests began springing up across the country, adding to the increasing popularity of barbecue in America. Contests left the county fair arena and were now stand alone events. They were similar to the popular chili cook-offs in Texas. In effect the contests professionalized barbecue. Most of today’s legendary barbecue champions had their starts cooking in these professional barbecue contests of the 1970’s; men like Mike Mills, Paul Kirk and John Willingham. Today there are over 500 barbecue contests in the United States each year.
In 1985 the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) was formed. Its mission is “to celebrate, teach, preserve, and promote barbecue as a culinary technique, sport and art form”, and has become the leading authority for the standardization of professional barbecue judging.**** Today it is the foremost recognized barbecue organization in the world with over 14,000 members and sanctions over 300 contests annually.
A final piece of barbecue history, in my opinion, was written in the last 10 years with the rise of the Food Network and other cooking channels. A number of the cooking shows on these stations have featured barbecue segments. In particular, the barbecue series Pitmasters airing on the Travel Channel the past two years has introduced mainstream
America to the best professional barbecue pitmasters, cooking techniques, quality barbecued meat, judging formats, and helped increase the popularity of barbecue.
Most of the history of barbecue and its evolution in America is credited to the South, and accurately so. However, barbecue continues to evolve today with the advent of new equipment, new techniques, new products, and new recipes. This new evolution isn’t limited to the South any longer. Great ideas can come from coast to coast. It’s easy to acknowledge that today great barbecue can be found in many places throughout the United States. This is a very wonderful thing!!
I work at being a student of barbecue. I’ve read many barbecue books – both general and regional, read many
articles, and have had numerous conversations about barbecue with my peers and above. However, the best and most complete book on the history of barbecue that I’ve found is the recent publication of Barbecue: The History of an American Institutionby Robert F. Moss. If you are interested in adding a “scholarly” element to your barbecue journey, this is the place to start.
The old adage ‘knowledge is power” may be true. However, knowledge can also be “fun”; like learning the history of your favorite passion. For me, fun is the continued search for knowledge of all things barbecue.
Where there's smoke, there's probably barbecue!
* Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Robert F. Moss, The University of Alabama Press, 2010.
** Dictionary.com, App, 2011.
*** Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, John Shelton Reed & Dale Volberg Reed
with William McKinney, The University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
**** Kansas City Barbecue Society, Website, Mission Statement, 2011.