- Historic Sites
It’s the most purely American food-and that’s maybe the only thing about it everyone agrees on
June/July 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 3
You can’t get good barbecue in Paris, London, or Hong Kong, but you can get 18 varieties in Lexington, North Carolina, and 7 in Plano, Texas. Barbecue is the all-American food, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But American barbecue—whether it’s known as barbecue, BBQ, bar-b-q, ’cue, or just Q—is more than a way of cooking: It’s myth, folklore, and American history; it’s politics (like the time Texas Gov. W. Lee (“Pappy”) O’Daniel put up barbecue pits at his inauguration and handed out free barbecue to anyone who showed up; 19,000 did, because in the South, politics and barbecue go together like ribs and sweetened iced tea); it’s controversy (disputes about meat and smoke can get hotter than the hottest barbecue sauce); and now it’s big business. But it’s old-fashioned big business. No multinational chain can yet make good barbecue; you’ve apparently got to be an old-fashioned individualist, hardworking, innovative, and maybe more than just a little offbeat. Take Ed Mitchell, of Wilson, North Carolina. He barbecued a hog out back of his mother’s small store one day to cheer her up, and the next thing he knew his mother’s customers were asking for some of that good-smelling ’cue. He began cooking more and more hogs, and then he and an 80-year-old neighbor developed a custom brick barbecue pit with innovations that Ed will tell you make his barbecue not only better but easier and more convenient. Now he wants to go coast to coast, giving barbecue to deprived Yankees who don’t know the real thing.
What is barbecue, real American barbecue? The answer depends on what part of the country you live in and who your parents were. It is one of the most intensely debated topics in American popular culture. At a restaurant in Galveston, Texas, I said to a couple at a nearby table, “Aren’t these ribs great!”
“Well,” said the man, “they’re pretty good. Only there’s a place down in Florida where we’re from. Just a little shack.” He looked around and lowered his voice. “This stuff is okay. But back home, now, that’s what I’d call real barbecue.”
“Real barbecue” is what you keep hearing when you get talking to people about barbecue. Just what does it mean? There are many definitions. The easiest thing is to start by defining what it isn’t. First of all, it isn’t grilling. “You’re not flipping burgers or searing a steak. Instead you’re trying to turn a large, tough, gnarly cut of meat into something tender and succulent,” says one barbecue man I know. And second, barbecue certainly isn’t basting oven-baked chicken or ribs with “barbecue sauce,” the way Mom likes to do for Sunday dinner.
The European arrivals found natives barbecuing in many parts of America and apparently took to it with alacrity.
The hard part is to figure out what real barbecue is. The basic definition seems simple enough. It’s meat cooked over a framework, not on a spit, over a low bed of coals, not a brisk campfire, and slowly. It can take 12 hours or even longer, which is one reason barbecue pit masters often wake up very early. David Whitfield, a Mississippian hog cooker, says, “The key to cooking is to start slow, and don’t ever get much faster.” This accomplishes two things. It makes the meat tender and succulent, allowing the protein strands to stay long and supple as they cook and retain the meat’s juices, and it flavors the meat with the alchemical smoke from the coals. The result is addictive, delicious, and impossible to get any other way.
It sounds easy enough. barbecuing is slow cooking over coals. But once you start talking about what kind of meat to cook, over what kind of coals, for how long, and with how much smoke—and then throw in what kind of sauce, if any, you’re going to serve it with—well, the United States is a big country, and there are plenty of big opinions on each of these matters. And, of course, the controversy doesn’t stop there. From “What is barbecue?” you move on to another hotly debated topic, “Where did barbecue come from?” Everyone agrees that natives of the Caribbean had a great deal to do with it. But what about Native Americans? Or African-Americans? Or even European-Americans? What contributions did they make? No one is really sure.
We do know that the Spanish conquistadors reported seeing Taino-Arawak and Carib natives in Hispaniola roasting, drying, and smoking meat (alligator, deer, and maybe even human) on wooden frameworks over small beds of coals. They called the framework a babracot , which the Spaniards turned into a barbacoa . The method appeared ludicrous to many early Europeans. Cooking over coals was not unusual, but over such low heat? An early French traveler noted incredulously: “A Caribbee has been known, on returning home from fishing fatigued and pressed with hunger, to have the patience to wait the roasting of a fish on a wooden grate fixed two feet above the ground, over a fire so small as sometimes to require the whole day to dress it.” Not coincidentally, perhaps, these peoples also invented the hammock, a good place to lounge while waiting for barbecue to get done.