Beginnings of barbecue
THE history of barbecue in the United States dates back to pre-Civil War days (before 1861) in the South. Barbecued meat is slow-cooked on low, indirect heat. It takes hours or even days for meat to cook this way.
An article in The Economist on the American culture of barbecue ( Fire In The Hole, Dec 6, 2010) offers a concise and definitive explanation of barbecue.
“It is a noun, not a verb. You do not barbecue meat; you smoke it until it becomes barbecue. And it is not a meal so much as a meditative process, perched somewhere between science and art, dependent on reserves of judgment. The science lies in building a fire that will smoulder steadily without flaring, and in constructing a vessel that will bathe the meat in smoke without subjecting it to too much heat. The art lies in the butchering and seasoning. The judgment comes in knowing precisely when a cooking process that may last as long as 18 or 24 hours should end.”
Though we often use the term barbecue to describe outside-cooking on the grill, the two are very different.
Barbecue meat is cooked slowly over low heat, while grilled meat is often done over higher heat and much more quickly. The cuts of meat used also differ. The primary meats used for barbecue are pork (often the whole hog) and large portions of beef and sometimes, a whole chicken.
There is evidence that the first president of the United States, George Washington, was a fan of barbecue. A salon.com article titled What’s Behind The
American Love Of Barbecue (published in May this year) reports that Washington (who was a “terse diarist”) had entries about the various barbecues he attended.
Early barbecues usually involved the cooking of whole animals, often several.
An article in Red Cloud Chief, a Nebraska newspaper back in 1917 (with the headline
Midwest Merchants Will Feast at Big Barbecue) reported: “The schedule of food already includes one ox, one sheep, and two pigs which will be barbecued. In addition the necessary fixins will be added to make the meal delightful and satisfying.”
So, barbecue has always been very popular in America. But the flavour profiles of barbecued meat differ geographically.
In North Carolina, for example, pork is popular (whole or the shoulder) and it is seasoned minimally, if at all. The sauce is usually a cider vinegar with salt and red pepper flakes. And maybe, a little tomato.
In South Carolina, a mustard-based sauce is a must. In Memphis, Tennessee, pork ribs (served dry, rubbed with spices) and shoulder (pulled, on a sandwich and with coleslaw) rule. In Texas, beef is the meat of choice and brisket (with crackers or bread, onions and pickles) is the barbecue speciality. The Kansas City barbecue, which has become the style of barbecue most people identify with American barbecue, is slathered with a sweet, tomato-based sauce. A wide variety of meats is used, too — pork, pork ribs, beef brisket, beef ribs, chicken, turkey, etc.
The origins of barbecue in America are somewhat hazy. Many believe that the word is derived from the Caribbean word “barbacoa” which translated into “sacred fire pit”. In the traditional barbacoa, a big hole is dug in the ground for the meat (usually a whole goat) to rest in. The meat is then covered with leaves and coal and set alight and left to cook for hours.
In America, barbecue usually revolves around pork simply because in the early days (the 19th century), pigs were low maintenance animals (that fed on practically anything) that could be found in abundance.
It was reportedly the Spanish colonists (who settled in South Carolina in the 16th century) who introduced pork to the American Indians who in turn taught them the art of slow cooking with smoke.