Barbecue: An American Tradition out of a Global Cuisine

By Jennifer Bailey

M.L.A. Candidate in Gastronomy

Boston University

Paper presented to SAG 22 November 2018

Barbecue is seen by many Americans as an American institution: it is as American as baseball or apple pie. But what is barbecue? The northern United States of America tends to use barbecue more as a verb (anything can be barbecued so long as it has sauce and is on a grill), while the southern United States has significant regional distinctions as to what does and does not constitute barbecue. Additionally, nearly every meat-eating society has a form of meat slow roasted over fire, so why do Americans hold it closely as part of their identity? And where does barbecue as Americans know it come from? This paper will address both of those questions and fit American barbecue into the global family of barbecue.

The name barbecue comes from barbacoa, the word Spaniards used to describe the open-fire method of cooking meat used by the Taíno people of the Caribbean. In the American South this cooking term came to describe the cooking method frequently used for pigs. Throughout the 1800s, pigs were a fairly easy and cheap food source for those in the rural South. After the American Civil War, barbecue was popular among many lower income families, especially recently freed slaves. Many of these individuals went on to open up barbecue stands and by the 1950s many cities had African-American-run barbecue joints. Despite starting off as a cheap cooking method predominantly utilized by a marginalized group, barbecue has become widely popular in the United States.

Personal Background and Biases Acknowledgement

As I briefly addressed before, barbecue is a multifaceted word that has a wide range of uses and many people have strong opinions as to the correct use and meaning of the word. Therefore I am going to provide some of my own background to help mitigate some of the biases I may have on the definition and use of barbecue.

To understand my initial concept of barbecue, I discussed my parents’ exposure to and understanding of barbecue with my mom. (My dad passed away a couple of years ago, so I was unable to specifically ask him, but included some of the facets of his life experience growing up that probably influenced him.) My mom spent the majority of her childhood in West Virginia. Her mother had spent much of her childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, but did not do much in the kitchen or with food preparation in general. My mom’s father grew up on a farm in western Minnesota.  He was always saving and copying recipes and did most of the cooking for the family. He was the one who barbecued (grilled) in my mom’s family while she was growing up. My mom noted that they did not just refer to meat grilled with sauce as barbecue, but the grill itself was also called a barbecue. She also remembered being surprised when moving to Detroit, Michigan, that pulled pork was barbecue.

My dad primarily grew up in Northern California. His mother grew up in Missouri (both rural parts and St. Louis) and his father was from Fresno, California. As with my mom, in general grilling was barbecue in my dad’s family. However, she does not think he had a moment where he was surprised at a particular concept of barbecue. His family traveled a fair amount and was very active in the community, providing a larger experience and exposure to more ideas. Although he probably had a broader definition of barbecue than my mom, his primary personal definition was more in line with grilling out in the backyard.

My interest in the general topic of barbecue stems from growing up in the Midwest, barbecuing (grilling) throughout the summer, and then living in East Tennessee for six years during and just after my undergraduate study. While living in East Tennessee, I also spent a fair amount of time in Memphis and eastern North Carolina. Although I typically referred to grilling out as barbecuing while growing up, and I recall calling the grill a barbecue grill, I do not remember being surprised  by the more specific concept of barbecue I encountered when moving to Tennessee. This probably comes from growing up in Detroit as well as my dad’s broader definition of the term. What did stand out to me while I lived in Tennessee was the distinct regional differences throughout the South as to what constituted barbecue.

Defining Barbecue

Barbecue is a food that both unifies and polarizes the United States. It has been part of American society and culture since the colonial era. One could argue that ever since the inception of barbecue, it has been continually enjoyed and debated. Robert Moss (2010, 1) states at the beginning of his book, “Americans love barbecue. They love to eat it, argue about it, and read about it.” Part of this debate stems from defining barbecue and the other from defending particular views of what constitutes barbecue.

Nearly all societies cook meat over an open flame, or have a culinary history utilizing such a method. So the question becomes, what makes barbecue distinctively barbecue? For simplicity’s sake, I am going to primarily look at the inception of the word barbecue, how it has been used and how people tend to agree to use it today.

Since food history has not been a very widely researched topic, there is speculation behind the origin of the word barbecue. The two most agreed upon origins either derive barbecue from the French barbe à queue, which means “beard to tail,” or the Spanish barbacoa that came from a term the Taíno Arawak people utilized (Deutsch and Elias 2014, 13-15). The French version is especially argued in circles that advocate “whole hog” barbecue. This means that to be considered barbecue you cook the whole animal, nose (or beard) to tail. This origin can be popular in the Carolinas for that reason (Reed, Reed, and McKinney 2008, 16). The Oxford English Dictionary dismisses the influence of barbe à queue as “absurd conjecture suggested merely by the sound of the word” (Moss 2010, 8). It is more likely that the English barbecue comes from the Spanish barbacoa. Many sources, including Bendele (2009, 88) and Warnes (2008, 22), tout that the first appearance of the word barbacoa was in Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés’s 1526 piece, Historia general y natural de las Indias.

Oviedo was describing a scene on the Isthmus of Panama. He described indigenous people using raised stick framework structures to store grain and cook food (Bendele 2009, 88). There is debate over whether he was referring to the structure or the method of slowly smoking and cooking meat. Warnes (2008, 22-23) argues that the term was probably for the structure that was utilized for roasting meat, storing grains, and as a sleeping platform. Warnes goes on to try to prove that the term was stripped of its original meaning and applied to the cooking method as a way to tie barbarism to the New World and the people who lived there.

Jonathan Deutsch and Megan Elias (2014, 8-9) created a chart that breaks down the appropriate uses and misuses of the term barbecue. I will include some of that information here to help better define the word for use throughout the rest of the paper. Barbecue can be used as a noun, verb, or adverb. Acceptable uses as a noun include a food prepared by slow smoke roasting, a gathering where barbecued food is served, and a grill or piece of equipment that is used to cook barbecued food. The acceptable use as a verb is to cook by slow smoke roasting. Acceptable adjective usage includes something that has been cooked by slow smoke roasting or something seasoned with smoke or spices referencing barbecue flavors. Incorrect use as a verb is to describe cooking by direct grilling – for instance, you would grill hamburgers, not barbecue them. And incorrect use as an adjective is to describe food that has been cooked by direct grilling. Deutsch and Elias (2014, 9-11) go on to defend their acceptable uses of barbecue, by further clarifying that barbecue is a combination of slow heat, smoke, and roasting. Anything additional is just window dressing and regional preferences while anything less is not barbecue.

History of Barbecue in the United States

Barbecue has always been more than just food in the United States.  Even in the colonial era it quickly became an integral part of American social and political life, especially in the South and West. In 1707, Edward Ward published a pamphlet entitled, “The Barbacue [sic] Feast: or, the three pigs of Peckham, broiled under an apple-tree.” The pamphlet described a feast of slow roasted pigs, prepared and consumed by English colonists in Peckham, Jamaica (Moss 2010, 5-6). This is the earliest known account of barbecue in the English language (Warnes 2008, 54).

            Throughout the eighteenth century, barbecues were rather common place in New England. Most references to these are in private diaries of the time, some of which expand more than others on the nature of barbecue. In 1759, the community of Falmouth, Maine celebrated the fall of Quebec City in the French and Indian War with a barbecue on one of the harbour islands.  This island is now known as Hog Island because of the barbecue (Moss 2010, 11). Although there are a variety of references to barbecues in New England during this period, they are rarely seen in this region after the Revolutionary War, especially when compared to other regions (Moss 2010, 11).

            Barbecue seemingly took off in Virginia during the colonial time period. A number of factors could have influenced this, however, it certainly helped that there was a massive pig population in Virginia. Between five hundred and six hundred pigs were brought by Virginia Company ships and with a gestation period of four months, the pig population skyrocketed (Moss 2010, 12). At this point, the choice of meat for barbecue was not as contentious as it is now. The colonists used whatever was readily accessible, or whatever they had on hand. However, the records available that describe barbecue in more detail, frequently mention pigs (Moss 2010, 16). That tradition is why pork is the meat of choice for a large portion of barbecue aficionados today.

            Virginia was the home of the first political barbecue. Elections in colonial Virginia were infrequent: they only occured when the governor dissolved the Assembly or a member quit or died (Syndor 1965, 26-29 and Isaac 1982, 111). To choose representatives, eligible voters would gather from miles around at the county courthouse. Office seekers would “treat”the voters with liquor and food.  Eventually this evolved into providing barbecue for the voters (Sydnor 1965, 51). During the 1758 House of Burgesses election, George Washington spent £39.6s to treat voters (Beeman 1992, 148). At this juncture, so long as spending was not extravagant, treating was not seen as bribing voters.

There were several barbecues in Carolina cities at this time. These were primarily a form of entertainment for the well-to-do (Moss 2010, 18). There were not many barbecues in more rural parts of the Carolinas until the 1770s due to limited populations and a lack of safety and stability. Following the Revolutionary War, barbecues became a popular, and eventually traditional, way to celebrate the Fourth of July. Due to their connection with elections and ability to bring people together, barbecues became the “quintessential form of democratic public celebration” (Moss 2010, 24). By the 1800s, Fourth of July celebrations were formal and rather standardized across the country.  This included barbecues, even in regions of the United States not frequently associated with barbecue. Political and patriotic speeches were made at these Fourth of July barbecues. Many individuals who participated in these orations soon experienced an uptick in their businesses or, if they were politically involved, usually found political advancement shortly after the barbecue (Audubon 1926, 241). This helped continue the trend of political barbecues. However, by 1818 candidates were no longer treating their voters to barbecue. Instead, they were guests at voters’ barbecues (Moss 2010, 39).

The 1820s were known as the “Era of Good Feelings,”and was predominantly a time of one-party rule. But the 1830s saw the rise of the political party system in the United States, due to growing opposition to a variety of Andrew Jackson’s policies. The end of the 1820s also saw a large spike in eligible voters and by Jackson’s term, almost all white male Americans were eligible to vote (Moss 2010, 42-43). Campaign barbecues began involving more than food and drink; they were integral contributors to the process of informed democracy. By comparison, the colonial political barbecues were rough and rowdy. In the 1830s, these became far more respectable and focused on bringing the community together. They were an essential part of political life in the early nineteenth century.

By the 1840s, a reliable picture of a barbecue from the era can be formed from the various contemporary published descriptions. Preparation and setup took several days, including bringing animals to the site to slaughter and digging a pit to cook them in. In the South, pits were tended by slaves. Occasionally, a white man might supervise the pit; however, it was usually an older slave who was well known for his barbecue mastery (Moss 2010, 49). The mid-nineteenth century saw a rise in women attending barbecues as they became the main form of public celebration.

Slave owners used barbecues as a means of control. Many owners gave their slaves Fourth of July and Christmas barbecues as a reward for their labor. This helped perpetuate the image of the benevolent master that was part of the Southern psyche (Moss 2010, 63). Some masters allowed their slaves to hold their own barbecues for recreation. However, these barbecues became integral for some slave uprisings as they provided inconspicuous means for slaves to get together, interact, and exchange ideas and eventually most were stopped, aside from the holiday barbecues. Gabriel’s Rebellion in Henrico County, Virginia, was one of the more well-known slave uprisings that utilized barbecues as a means to plan the rebellion (Foner 2006, 259).

Around this time, barbecues were also used as an incentive for collaborative work. This could be corn husking, followed by a barbecue, or other work such as hog killing and cotton picking. Louis Hughes, author of Thirty Years a Slave, described a plantation barbecue in his memoir: “Barbecue originally meant to dress and roast a hog whole but has come to mean the cooking of a food animal in this manner for the feeding of a great company. A feast of this kind was always given to us, by Boss, on the 4th of July. The anticipation of it acted as a stimulant through the entire year” (Hughes 1897, 46).

Barbecues played a vital role in building railroads. The railroad promoters would throw a barbecue to attract people to rallies to support building the railroads. The main goal was to convince people to buy shares of stock in the railroad companies at these barbecues. People were not only motivated by a return investment, but also by the hope that railroads would improve land value, open new markets, and increase trade (Moss 2010, 73). The railroad barbecue was a staple of civic life in the 1840s and 1850s throughout the South and Midwest.

Barbecue continued to move west as the United States expanded and reached California by the 1850s. The United States as a whole has always been a rather diverse melting pot. This was especially apparent at an 1856 Republican barbecue held in Oakland, California. The political speeches at this barbecue were delivered in English, French, German, and Spanish (Lowell 1856, 2).

As tensions about slavery rose in the months leading up to the Civil War and  during the subsequent years of the war, barbecues took on a new purpose. Barbecues became a recruiting ground for soldiers. The Confederacy also used barbecues to send off troops and welcome them  home (Moss 2010, 94). These barbecues were organized by women in the community and likely had male slaves tending the pits.

After the Civil War, the traditional Fourth of July barbecue lost prominence as the main form of celebration in the white communities in the South and did not regain its previous stature until the start of the Spanish-American War. The Fourth of July barbecue remained a key event in Southern African American social life following the Civil War.

After the Civil War, Emancipation Day celebrations became a major event in the social lives of African Americans. These celebrations tended to be more common in the South, with barbecue and the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation playing key roles. Each state had different days that they celebrated, although many were in early June. At many Emancipation Day celebrations, prominent white citizens were invited to gives speeches on citizenship and self-improvement (Moss 2010, 98-99). Texas had large celebrations across the state and in 1980 became the first state to declare Emancipation Day an official state holiday. In 1893 in Texas, and eventually throughout the United States, Emancipation Day became commonly known as Juneteenth, since it was usually celebrated on the 18th or 19th of June in Texas. In 1863, the Democratic Party started hosting large barbecues specifically to try to win African American voters from the Republican Party. These were especially popular in places such as Yalobusha County, Mississippi, where the black voter population was significantly higher than the white voting population (Hamill 1904, 59-60).

The 1880s saw some of the first instances of barbecue being sold for profit, with barbecue stands popping up at fairs and other festivals. Previously, when there was a fee for barbecue it covered the cost of animals and side dishes in instances when it was not a communal barbecue at which people donated goods. Even so, these new, for-profit barbecue stands frequently accepted a ticket admission for all the barbecue an individual could eat (Thompson 1939, 415).

The end of the nineteenth century was when pitmasters first became well-known for their barbecue skills. Many were only well-known in their community, but some reached national fame. These individuals’ influence also helped begin to define barbecue by region (Moss 2010, 107). Sheriff John W. Callaway of Wilkes County, Georgia, was well known for his skill managing the pit and also preparing a side of “hash” which was similar to Brunswick Stew. In the late 1880s he was touted to “know more about barbecue than any man in the country” and in 1895, was called “the patron saint of barbecue as it is known in Georgia” (Moss 2010, 109). North Carolina had Frank T. Meacham and by 1922, he was so well known that a Farm Bureau barbecue was announced to be prepared “a la Meacham style” (Moss 2010, 114).

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a barbecue revival seemed to hit the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. There were several articles in Harper’s Weekly lauding the accolades of Southern barbecue and declaring it an institution of the South (Moss 2010, 124-125). Even though, at this point barbecue was an integral part of social life for those living in the South, Midwest, Southwest, and Pacific Coast. The renewed attention that northern and British authors gave barbecue stemmed from a “highly romanticized view of the old South” (Moss 2010, 125). Harper’s Weekly contributor, Maude Andrews, wrote, “The Georgia barbecue is one of the few remaining feasts of antebellum days left to the present generation – a feast typical, indeed, of the lavishness of living peculiar to the old South – a lavishness, not elegant perhaps, often barbaric, indeed, but proffered with the generosity and magnificence of monarchs” (Andrews 1895, 1072). This romanticized view was further perpetuated through a variety of fictional accounts of the time, including Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind and the subsequent movie adaptation.

Barbecue restaurants began appearing at the turn of the twentieth century. Their origins were varied: some grew out of backyard operations, others popped up next to new roadways, and others arrived in vacant city lots (Moss 2010, 126). The similarities lay in the trajectory they followed, typically from an informal trade to a permitted business, usually in areas where there were a lot of people who lacked access to other food.

The country’s population began migrating to urban centers. Originally, in more rural environments, it required a special occasion to gather people together to roast a pig. Towns and cities could attract enough people to make daily barbecue operations feasible. “As barbecue became a business, things became more standardized” (Moss 2010, 130). The barbecue restaurant helped create the regional differences we see in barbecue today. Typically proprietors would make use of the most readily available meat, which is why pork is popular in North Carolina and beef in Texas. Side dishes, too, became more regionally specific. This was in part due to a lack of refrigeration and standardization from one person preparing the sides as opposed to the whole community bringing random dishes together to form a meal. Another aspect that shaped regional differences in barbecue was the informal apprenticeship system. Young boys would go work for a local pitmaster to learn the art of barbecue and then, eventually open their own place and train the next generation of apprentices.

There were a variety of driving forces behind the growth of barbecue restaurants in the United States. One was meeting the public’s demand for a filling, inexpensive meal. Businesses enabled independence and self-sufficiency which many found appealing, especially African Americans, who did not have as many other appealing work options (Moss 2010, 167). With automobiles more accessible to the general public and automobile touring taking off in the 1920s, roadside barbecue stands quickly sprang up. Barbecue was ideal for the roadside stands since it did not require expensive equipment and was easy to serve and take away. Smoke from a barbecue pit was the only advertisement needed (Brown & Brown 1937, 28): a hungry traveler need only follow their nose.

 As soldiers came back from WWII they began buying homes under the GI Bill. People began spending leisure time in their backyards and even began entertaining there (Deutsch and Elias 2014, 45). This began the rise of the “backyard barbecue”, which was also called “grilling out” or “cooking out” (Moss 2010, 177).  Between the 1930s and 1960s, grilling became a staple of suburban life in the United States and led to some of the confusion behind the meaning of the word barbecue.

California became the first place to fully adopt utilizing an outdoor grill in daily life. It helps that the weather on the West Coast is conducive to  outdoor  cooking much of the year. California’s Sunset Magazine, created Sunset’s Barbecue Book in 1938, that fully discussed barbecue and included a spread of brick barbecue designs (Moss 2010, 178). The magazine also described barbecue as an important part of the California lifestyle, because it allowed the individual to “get away from the daily routine” and awaken “impulses that hark back to pioneer days” (Moss 2010, 178). Men who had been socialized to be uncomfortable in formal gatherings could play at “savagery” by using flames to cook meat and their bare hands to eat in a socially acceptable fashion (Deutsch and Elias 2014, 45). Hamburgers and hotdogs were popular at backyard cookouts because they were cheaper than steak and people still had many of the war year economies ingrained in their household purchasing (Lovegren 1995, 121). The following years led to an increase in personal grilling equipment for the home and eventually the commercialization of barbecue sauce.

Political barbecues reached an all time high when Lyndon B. Johnson was in office. He hosted around one hundred barbecues at his Texas ranch. Some of the guests included Chancellor Ludwig Erhard of West Germany, President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz of Mexico, and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol of Israel (Moss 2010, 212).

The rise of the fast food industry in the 1960s slowly began pushing barbecue to the margins of the roadside food scene. Wood is harder for traditional barbecue stands to come by. It is difficult to source the amount of wood needed and the cost can be prohibitive (Moss 2010, 224). As the meat industry industrialized and became more nationalized, it became harder to acquire low-demand cuts. This led most restaurants in the 1970s to either drop pit-cooked barbecue or to exclusively focus on it.

Around this time there was also a shift in the American lexicon. Prior to the mid-20th century anything barbecued was slow cooked over an open fire. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the focus moved to the sauce and anything with barbecue sauce was considered barbecue (Moss 2010, 227).

Barbecue competitions are a facet that, at least in the United States, and have been tied to barbecue possibly since it’s its inception. However, they really took off on a national level with the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest that first took place in 1978. Barbecue competitions add a variety of different aspects to the conversation of barbecue. There is a lot that can be unpacked from the rules, sponsorships, and culture surrounding the competitions. However, there is enough additional information that I will not delve into it further here, as that could be an additional paper.

Regional Differences of Barbecue in the United States

Each region in the United States has specific ways to prepare and consume what they consider barbecue. The information that follows is a rather broad picture of each regions concept of barbecue. It mostly focuses on meats and sauces as opposed to some of the sides such as burgoo stew.

North Carolina has two distinctive styles of barbecue; the “Eastern Style” that runs along the Atlantic coast and the “Leington” or “Piedmont” Style. Eastern Style is chopped whole hog barbecue served with a vinegar and pepper sauce. It is served with the cracklin’ (crispy pig skin) to provide a distinct textural variation (Solares 2016). The Piedmont is a plateau that lies between the Atlantic coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains that runs from New Jersey to Alabama. In North Carolina Piedmont refers to the Piedmont Triad, which refers to the three major cities that are in the Northeast region region of North Carolina and lie on the plateau (Godfrey 1997). Lexington refers to a city in North Carolina in this region. Either of these names can be used to reference pork shoulder barbecue with a sauce of tomatoes, vinegar, and pepper (Solares 2016).

South Carolina is known for its whole hog barbecue served with a mustard sauce, commonly referred to as “Carolina Gold” (Solares 2016). Although barbecue purists make their own, Carolina Gold can be found in local grocery stores and online. Charleston to Columbia is predominantly the mustard sauce region in South Carolina. Eastern parts of the state serve barbecue more similar to North Carolina Eastern Style and in the west one can find Lexington Style.

Tennessee is divided into East Tennessee barbecue and Memphis Style. East Tennessee serves chopped whole hog and pork shoulder with a vinegar based sauce. Memphis, Tennessee is known for it’s “dry” or “wet” ribs. Dry ribs are coated in a rub (mix of herbs and spices) and then smoked. Wet ribs are basted during smoking and served covered with a tomato based sauce.

Kentucky, particularly western Kentucky, is known for mutton barbecue. The Tariff of 1816 made wool production very profitable in that part of the country and the sheep population rapidly increased (Riches 2019). Aging sheep that no longer produced quality wool were typically too tough and considered too strong to eat. However, the slow roasting barbecue method, along with the smoke and sauce turned the mutton into a delicious regional dish. This type of barbecue is served with a “dip” (sauce) of a Worcestershire sauce base. This type of barbecue is especially popular around Owensboro, KY.

Kansas City, Missouri is willing to put almost anything in a barbecue pit. Pork, beef, chicken, fish, and beans can all be found in the barbecue pit (Solares 2016). Burnt ends, or double-smoked caramelized hunks of brisket, originated in Kansas City. In the 1920’s Arthur Bryant developed a now well-known molasses and tomato based sauce that many barbecue aficionados have tried to recreate.

Texas has three main styles of barbecue. Central Texas Style is the most well known and came from the German and Czech meat markets of the 19th century (Moss 2010, 159-65). The Central Texas style took traditional central European butchery techniques and combined them with readily available meat and wood to establish their method. They predominantly used oak and cooked beef brisket, sausages, and occasionally short ribs (Solares 2016).Central Texas frequently will not utilize a sauce.  When sauce is used it’s a “mop sauce.” Mop sauce is a thin sauce glaze that is applied with a mop to add flavor and moisture to the meat as it cooks (Houck 2016). Mop sauce is typically beef stock, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and a blend of spices.

In eastern Texas, pork is popular, as are typical Southern barbecue traditions. In the west and southwest of Texas there’s a large influence from the cowboy tradition and traditionally Mexican styles of barbecue. These methods are typically direct grilling as opposed to smoking (Solares 2016).

Northern Alabama is known for Alabama white sauce. Alabama white sauce is a mix of mayonnaise, vinegar, and pepper and is typically served with smoked chicken (Houck 2016). Occasionally this sauce is served with pork.

Global Barbecue

The world of barbecue is practically endless. There are only three main cooking steps and a wide array of meat, spices, and fuel can be used. Deutch and Elias (2014, 70-71) provide a simple breakdown of this cooking method. First, pre-season the meat with a spice rub, paste, marinade, or brine. Second, several hours after pre-seasoning, slowly smoke roast (barbecue) the item until fork tender. Third, during or after cooking, baste, mop, dip, or glaze with a sauce to add moisture and flavor. However, only the second step is required to technically be barbecue.

Every meat eating region of the world has a version of barbecue. Some of the better known, culturally significant barbecues follow. Several countries in southern Africa utilize the Afrikaans term braai or braaivleis. Similarly to barbecue, braai does not mean one specific thing. It is utilized like barbecue, however, it can also indicate direct grilling (Deutch & Elias 2014, 72). Coupé-coupé is a similar catchall term utilized in Central Africa.

China had a long history of barbecued meats, however today many are roasted in a gas or electric oven. Siu mei is the Chinese all encompassing term for barbecue, however, they have many specific terms to indicate exactly to what they are referring (Deutch & Elias 2014, 76). For instance, char siu is barbecued boneless pork from the collar or shoulder, marinated in a sauce. Mongolian barbecue was a popular restaurant item in the 1970’s and ‘80s, however, it is neither Mongolian or barbecue. Instead it is a dish of stir fried meat and vegetables.

The tandoor ovens found in central Asia and parts of the Middle East can produce barbecue. The cooking done in these ovens is typically slow cooked over coals. However, due to the short distance from the coals, some consider this to be more similar to grilling than barbecue (Deutch & Elias 2014, 81).

Planking is a traditional barbecue method of U.S. and Canadian First Nations. This is when meat is placed on a soaked plank of wood and then smoked and steamed over the fire (Deutch & Elias 2014, 81). Traditionally this would have been salmon on cypress or cedar in the Pacific Northwest and shad on the east coast.

Barbacoa is popular in Mexico. This term comes from the Spanish word used to describe the Arawak cooking method. Mexican barbacoa is meat cooked in a hole dug in the ground (Deutch & Elias 2014, 82). The asado found in South America is a large fire where whole or half animals are split and placed on stakes to cook over several hours. The Hawaiian kalua is a pit roasted pig and is popular at a variety of feasts and holidays. Many Pacific Islanders have similar cooking methods.

Australia is often associated with barbecue. However, what it is most associated with is the quick grilling method that was shown in a 1980’s Australian Tourism Commission advertisement (Deutsch & Elias 2014, 93). This advertisement depicted actor Paul Hogan offering to “slip an extra shrimp on the barbie” for visitors. The New Zealand Maori tradition of hangi is a traditional pit barbecue method.


As previously mentioned, barbecue is found in every meat eating society. In many of these societies it has strong cultural ties connected to celebration and commensality. That is definitely true in its popularity in the United States. From the Colonial Period onward in the United States it provided a means for people to get together. In many ways barbecue was frequently a fairly easy way to feed a large group of people and since it brought everyone together it provided a means for political and social discourse. This was the commonality found across the U.S. and throughout its history. The regional differences that developed due to distance and differing access helped create identifying factors that people have clung to as their identity. This puts barbecue in the United States in an interesting position to both be able to draw people together in a national identity and yet maintain a strong regional identity.


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