It's cold out, and that means it's barbecue season. (for me anyway)
The word barbecue can refer to a way of cooking with fire, the food cooked in this manner, or even the outdoor party where people eat all that smoky deliciousness. But where did the word originate? Fix yourself an ice-cold beverage and let's lift the lid on some very American etymology.
Arawak (or Arhuaco) is the name used to describe some indigenous peoples in South America and the Caribbean islands. Though geographically widespread, and composed of numerous tribes, the Arawak people speak related languages, which are all part of the Arawakan family. This language group, which likely originated in the area that is now Bolivia and Colombia, was the predominant language of South America and the islands when Europeans arrived in the fifteenth century. Speakers of these languages in the Caribbean referred to themselves as Taíno, meaning "relatives." The Taíno were the first Americans that Europeans encountered when Christopher Columbus arrived at Guanahani island in the Bahamas in 1492.
Here's how that relates to the backyard barbecue we know today.
Barabicu is the Taíno word for a framework that's made of sticks and elevated above the ground on posts and used for different purposes. One was sleeping since they kept people safe from creatures prowling below.
(Speaking of sleeping, the word hammock comes from the Carib Indian word hamaca — the Carib were the other main inhabitants of the Caribbean islands at the time of the European conquest.)
Barabicu frames were also used for drying or cooking meat. Because they were fairly high up, out of range of the flames so the sticks wouldn't catch fire, food would cook slowly and pick up a lot of flavor from the smoke. On the island of Hispaniola, today divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the local linguistic variant of barabicu was barbakoa.
Because smoky, slow-cooked meat is delicious, this culinary technique caught on among the invaders, giving its name to the meat as well as the method. Barbacoa entered Spain and spread throughout Europe from there: to Portuguese, then French, and into English by 1648. The first recorded use in English of barbecue describing not just the cooking method but also people gathering outdoors to enjoy the feast is from 1733.
In Mexico and parts of the U.S., barbacoa is still used to describe a different kind of traditional cooking, where goat, lamb, or beef is cooked for hours in a pit dug in the ground. And barbecue means different things in different regions within the U.S.; in the Carolinas, it's most often pork, while in Texas beef brisket is the king of meats. Other cities and states have their own specialties, and particular sauces and fans of each style will swear that theirs is the best or even the only true form of barbecue.
Without taking sides in whose recipe wins the taste test, we will say that any barbecue worthy of that name involves indirect heat, as in a smoker, for a prolonged period. If your meat is right over the flames then you're grilling, not barbecuing.
A final note: there are a number of theories regarding the origin of BBQ, from a rancher's brand to a nineteenth-century pool hall advertisement, but most experts agree that it's just an abbreviation, albeit an unusual one where the first letter of each syllable is included.
The debate over the origin of American Barbecue is one that will probably never be resolved. By defining barbecue as a process by which meat is slow cooked over a low fire with smoke opens up the history of barbecue to prehistoric times. As to who gets to claim the origin of American Barbecue, well, wars have been fought over less.
First of All, Let's Separate Grilling From Smoking
While they may appear similar in equipment and techniques they are very different ways of cooking. Grilling is a hot and fast cooking process, and while you can get the introduction of smoke and fire you don't get the same results that you do from smoking. The smoking of foods is a slow process, sometimes taking more than 24 hours to complete.
This Is Grilling
Now while people will refer to cooking a steak out on the barbecue, buying a new barbecue grill, or attending a barbecue where hamburgers were served, this isn't barbecue. This is grilling. We do not take sides on which is a better way to cook. Given the time we will typically barbecue, otherwise, we grill. Each has its own virtues.
Regional Variations of Barbecue
Moving forward to nail down what true barbecue is, it's time to look at the regional variations. In Texas, we have beef, particularly brisket. In the Carolinas, we find pork, either whole hogs or pork shoulder. As you start moving towards Kansas City you find ribs, generally, pork ribs but beef ribs are not unheard of. Out in western Kentucky, you find Mutton. The thing all these traditions have in common is low cooking temperatures over a long time with the introduction of smoke to flavor and tenderize. They all start out with tough and unruly cuts of meat and end up with tender, pull apart delicacies.
- Brisket: Texas-style beef brisket is made from one of the toughest cuts of meat. Because of this, it can take a very long time to cook to the point of fork tenderness. Served sliced with a thick tomato sauce.
- Owensboro Mutton: This strange tradition goes back to the beginning of the 19th century when sheep production in the United States finally became profitable. You'll find this dished up in Owensboro Kentucky, sliced on white bread with a black vinegar sauce.
- Pulled Pork: Probably the original American barbecue, this delicacy was enjoyed by the founding fathers. Slow smoked pork from either the whole hog or selected cuts become so tender it is pulled apart by hand, dished up on buns and topped with a thin vinegar sauce.
- Ribs: The most popular form of barbecue, you don't know what you are missing until you've had them the traditional way. There is more variation in how ribs are smoked but typically pork ribs are cooked in whole racks and served up with a thick tomato sauce.
The days when you could get lynched for misspeaking barbecue lore in some "Q" joint have, for the most part, passed. However, for the sake of conversation, you might need to know the difference between eating barbecue and attending a barbecue at some point in life. If you don't know barbecue then you owe it to yourself to go out and find some. When cooked right there are a few things that are better for your mouth.
How old is the meal you're eating right now? No, I'm not asking "how long has it been in the fridge;" I want to know how ancient the recipe for the food that you're consuming right now is. For some common foods, the answer is "extremely" — some of our favorite recipes have been used by human beings for thousands of years. And it isn't always the most basic foodstuffs that have the longest pedigree. Alongside staples like beer and roast boar, some of the most ancient recipes in human history involve elaborate instructions for foods like almond milk, hangover cures, and fancy cakes. This makes sense: we've always been a species that enjoys stuffing its face and passing down the knowledge about how to do it properly.
The archaeology of food is a genuine area of scholarly study, and for an understandable reason: food is the cornerstone of any human civilization, with ties to class divides, technology, crops, religion, ceremonies, and morals. So, no, that meat pie is not just a meat pie. The audience for recipes has changed radically throughout history, too; one of the oldest recipes on this list was made to be read-only by cooks for medieval nobles, while another was concealed in an abbey library for hundreds of years; food knowledge hasn't always been easily available to the masses. Now, however, you can enjoy the fruits of scholarly labor by making a 10th-century hangover stew or an 8,000-year-old pudding. They may taste faintly disgusting to your modern palate (and, considering that many of these recipes were created before modern hygiene standards, I'd not necessarily advise you to try to whip them up on your own) but hey, it's real history brewing in your crockpot.
1. Beer, 3400-2900 BC
The oldest beer recipe in the world was only discovered this week, but it wasn't entirely a "recipe" in the traditional sense: it was a breakdown of ingredients found in a beer-making facility uncovered in a dig site in China. Archaeologists exploring the site found brewing equipment dating back to around 3400 BC, in very early Chinese history, and sent off leftover traces from the jugs they'd found. The result? A very modern-sounding malted combination of millet, barley, Chinese pearl barley and tubers.
Ancient evidence of brewing has popped up all over the world, from Iran to Egypt — but for now, this particular facility has been crowned the oldest in human history. While the makers didn't write down their secret formula per se, you can bet a company will probably be marketing "the world's oldest beer" as soon as possible.
2. Nettle Pudding, 6000 BC
Nettles, while edible, aren't usually seen as tasty fodder, though foragers across Britain, in particular, say they're lovely as a soup or in a risotto (as long as they're prepared in some way that takes out their famous sting). But the oldest recipe in the United Kingdom, dating back 8000 years, involves them as the prime ingredient. I know, I'm not really envying ancient Britons much either.
The nettle recipe was uncovered as part of a 2007 investigation by the University of Wales Institute, which labeled it the oldest in the history of Britain: while it was only recorded in 6000 BC, it may actually be as much as two thousand years older than that. That's one hell of a pedigree for a dish that's pretty no-fuss: the researchers say it's essentially nettles boiled with barley and water. "Pudding," in this context, is used in its older sense as a savory term.
3. Meat Pie, 1700 BC
I'm Australian, and our nation is very devoted to the art of the meat pie. So it is thoroughly unsurprising to me to know that this delicacy has been enjoyed for over three thousand years. The source for the earliest meat pie recipe comes from ancient Mesopotamia; specifically, from tablets dating to 1700 BC, which were only translated from ancient Assyrian by French academic and chef Jean Bottero in 1985.
The three tablets, which are currently held by Yale University, contain detailed recipes for stews (there's a gazelle one, if you're interested), plus the ancient pie recipe. We're not entirely sure what kinds of birds the recipe requires, but with its emphasis on the gizzards as well as the rest of the bird, it's a testament to nose-to-tail eating:
"Carefully lay out the fowls on a platter; spread over them the chopped pieces of gizzard and pluck, as well as the small sêpêtu breads which have been baked in the oven; sprinkle the whole with sauce, cover with the prepared crust and send to the table."
4. Roast Boar, 4th-5th Century AD
This is one of the most famous ancient cookbooks in history: the De Re Coquinaria, a Roman recipe collection also called Apicius after a famous Roman gourmet. (He himself only contributed about three-fifths of the recipes, and the copies we have a date from long after his death.) It's divided into ten sections into various culinary topics, from "The Careful Housekeeper" to "The Quadruped," and contains hundreds of recipes, many of which are the earliest examples of their kind.
Along with more exotic fare for Roman audiences like roast dormouse and the liver of sows, the De Re Coquinaria contains less challenging stuff like straightforward roast boar. It tells you a lot about Roman cooking that Apicius gives two ways of cooking boar and seven different sauces to serve with it, but here's the mainstay:
"Wild boar is prepared thus: it is cleaned; sprinkled with salt and crushed cumin and thus left. The next day it is put into the oven; when done season with crushed pepper. A sauce for boar: honey broth, reduced wine, raisin wine."
5. Hangover Cure Stew, 900 AD
The oldest Arabic cookbook was published in ancient Baghdad by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq under the name The Book Of Dishes, and he didn't leave anything to chance: it contains a whopping 600 dishes for a variety of occasions. But the most famous one is the kishkiyya, otherwise known as the "hangover stew".
al-Warraq's book likely contains a lot of recipes that are older than him (he died in 961 AD), but we have no way of knowing just how ancient the kishkiyya really is. Regardless, it's full of goodness, including meat, chopped green vegetables and large amounts of herbs, and simmers into a rich broth. The full recipe is rather complicated, but if your head is aching after a night on the tiles, it likely won't hurt you.
6. Frumenty, 1381
Frumenty is one of those dishes that underpinned an entire society for ages— in this case, medieval European communities — and has since vanished without a trace. It was essentially boiled wheat cooked in almond broth with sweet flavorings and added fruit, and was eaten alongside savory dishes like meat, because the sweet/savory divide is in many ways essentially a modern invention. We have several recipes for frumenty, but the oldest dates from The Forme Of Cury, a medieval recipe collection dating back to 1381.
To the modern palate, frumenty tastes closest to porridge, and some contemporary chefs have tried to recreate the 14th century recipe for their own restaurants. If you feel inclined, you can try too, but The Forme Of Cury is maddeningly imprecise, so don't get out your kitchen scales in readiness. It's also in Middle English, so you'll need a translation:
"FOR TO MAKE FURMENTY:
Nym clene Wete and bray it in a morter wel that the holys gon al of and seyt yt til it breste and nym yt up. and lat it kele and nym fayre fresch broth and swete mylk of Almandys or swete mylk of kyne and temper yt al. and nym the yolkys of eyryn. boyle it a lityl and set yt adoun and messe yt forthe wyth fat venyson and fresh moton.
[Take clean wheat and crush it in a morter well that the hulls go all by themselves. Take fair fresh broth and milk of almonds or sweet milk of cows and temper it all. and take the yolks of eggs. Boil it a little and set it down and present it forth with fat venison and fresh mutton.]"
7. Linzer Torte, 1653
If you're looking for the oldest known confection in the world, you needn't look further than the linzer torte, a tart with jam, and a lattice pastry top. Its reputation as the most ancient of the cake recipes is down to the fact that its lineage has been traced back further than any other. It shows up not only in a 1696 recipe but in a Veronese manuscript dating back to 1653, which was found in the Admont Abbey in Austria in 2005, causing shockwaves in the admittedly small world of historical pastry.
If you want to make the exact Linzer torte of the Admont manuscript, you'll likely find something very different from the ones you'd get today. The book that broke the news, Wie mann die Linzer Dortten Macht (How To Make The Linzer Torte), explains that Linzer torte recipes have changed massively over the centuries, sometimes not even including the typical jam and lattice top. If you'd like to make one, it's probably best to stick to the version on Austria's national website.
To me, barbecue is not a cuisine, it’s an event and I’ll explain that to you and I’ll explain what that means. So many people that I’ve run across always talk about recipes or they show recipes and to me, I’ve developed recipes, I’ve been cooking for a very long time, and it’s not about the recipe, it’s about the event. It’s about when you’re outside doing a barbecue, what is the emotion that’s being created? What are the bonds that are being created? What are the memories that keep coming back from previous barbecues? That’s what barbecue is.
Recipes are simply a means to get to that point. They aren’t the end. The end is being at that point, being at that point of happiness, of love, of openness, and I can prove that to you because I have traveled to the largest American hospital outside of the U.S., which is in Landstuhl, Germany for four years, twice a year and unbeknownst to me, because I just wanted to go there and support our troops. I just can’t think of anything greater than that because without the military, without those troops, we’d have no freedoms.
I started doing that and what I found out about the third trip because I would try and get there somewhere around Christmas, somewhere around the Fourth of July, something that meant to people as a whole and to America, and about the third trip when I got there, a general actually and an officer of the clergy came up to me and said, “Hey Pat, these barbecues are helping and ministering to these kids far beyond what you realize”? They said for months and months afterward, they still talk about them.
What it was and what the clergy explained to me was that a barbecue is about family, it’s about love, it’s a gathering, it’s about oneness, it’s about camaraderie. I would see these kids when I first got there, and it would take about four or five days to put it together, not including the weeks prior to getting there, but I would see these kids that are wounded, missing limbs, missing body parts, PTSD, and psych wards, and they were forlorn. They were really into their world, they weren’t relating a whole lot to anybody, some of their closest friends maybe, but as I included them in helping make these barbecues a success, which I purchased a number of smokers there and donated them to the USO Warrior Center and also to The Fisher House, which was the very first barbecue, ... I included them, I saw them change.
I saw them slowly but surely opening up to each other because they had to work kind of together and smiling, and the day of the barbecue was a completely different scene than when I first got there. These kids were talking, smiling, happy, playing in a dunk tank that was provided for them for the barbecues. I mean, it was unreal and that’s all I wanted to do was bring a taste of home to these men and women, and even at that point, I didn’t know what was really happening until it was explained to me. A special Thanks goes out to American Legion Post GR01 for opening the doors to make this all happen
That’s why barbecue is not a cuisine, it’s an event and everything that I’ve tried to do since then is make every time I cook, when I had my shacks, mobile units and restaurant, when I did catering, was to make it an event. To make it something that was a talking point, that brought people together, that allowed them to open up and bond with each other. I think I was pretty successful at it.
For many people, German food often conjures up images of sauerkraut and boiled pork roasts rather than barbecue. However, like most cooking traditions, German cuisine began long ago on an open flame. One of their greatest contributions to the world includes smoked and grilled sausages. Sure, the Germans didn't invent sausage, but when we talk about Germany, we have to at least mention it.
If you fly into San Antonio and take your rental car north about 20 minutes (depending on traffic, of course), you will find the little town of New Braunfels. This is a German-inspired town. In the early days of the Republic, Sam Houston needed a source of people for his new country, so he appealed to German immigrants. These immigrants began settling throughout Texas preserving most of their culture, resulting in German-style cooking within Texas.
Most importantly, the Germans brought us brisket. The Brisket was considered a worthless cut of meat in the United States and usually ground up for chili or stew. The old German tradition placed tough brisket in a Dutch oven to cook low and slow until tender. It wasn't until the 1950s when a couple of German butchers put a brisket in a smoker to make modern Texas Barbecue.
The great thing about ordering food in restaurants in New Braunfels and Fredericksburg is that you can get a plate of BBQ ribs, German sausage, potato salad, and baked beans without knowing which is Texan and which is German. Fredericksburg (west of Austin by 100 miles or so), used to be a German-speaking town. Now, with the exception of a few German cultural festivals, these places are all American.
In addition to sausage, Germans have always had a strong liking for potato salad. Though true German potato salad is very different from what most Americans think potato salad should be. It is an important side dish to barbecue, much like coleslaw and beer. Beer and Germany. Could there be a connection?
Smoked sausage, potato salad, beer and coleslaw all have strong roots in German culture. So, next time you lift a rack of ribs off the grill and lift a dark and bitter beer to your lips, think of the brave explorers of the American frontier who ventured to Texas with an invite from Sam Houston.