- 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
The European arrivals found natives barbecuing in many parts of America, at least south of the not-yet-delineated Mason-Dixon Line. A Frenchman named Jacques Ie Moyne painted the Taino-Timucua of northern Florida cooking their meat and fish on a babracot in 1564. And a historian, Robert Beverley, commented in 1705 that the natives in Virginia had “two ways of Broyling viz. one by laying the Meat itself upon the Coals, the other by laying it upon Sticks rais’d upon Forks at some distance above the live Coals, which heats more gently, and drys up the Gravy; this they, and we also from them, call Barbacueing.”
The European colonists apparently took to this odd method of cooking with alacrity. By the end of the 1600s barbecuing parties had become so popular that Virginia had to enact a law prohibiting the celebratory shooting of firearms during them. As the meat cooked long and slow, guests danced and socialized or played outdoor games like horseshoes, with betting and liquid refreshment. Barbecuing was already not just a cooking method but a social event. George Washington mentions in his diaries attending barbecues a number of times, including a “Barbicue of my own giving at Accotinck” in 1773.
One of the frustrating things about these early colonial records is that they tell us virtually nothing about who was doing the barbecuing. Today the barbecue cook, or pit master, as he is sometimes called, is a celebrity of sorts, respected for his arcane skill. Then it was a different matter. A popular assumption is that the first pit masters were slaves. However, while there undoubtedly were slaves cooking barbecue fairly early on, large-scale slavery did not gain a real foothold in the South until the late 1600s, by which time barbecuing was already commonplace. It is very likely that slaves did the cooking at the well-heeled barbecues attended by George Washington in the late 1700s, but poorer whites probably did quite a bit of their own barbecuing. None of which is to deny African-Americans the enormous contributions they have made to American barbecue, but it seems reasonable to view barbecue as the ultimate representation of the American melting pot, created by Indians and transformed by different groups of blacks and whites.
One thing is certain, however. Whether black, white, or red, the pit masters were overwhelmingly male. In his book Smokestack Lightning , Lolis Elie quotes Amazing Grace Harris, a Kansas City barbecue cook, as saying somewhat bitterly, “I have to earn my respect; that’s what keeps me going. Most of the barbecue people are mens.”
In a world where cooking was usually done by women, barbecuing was and still is predominantly a men’s sport. Early American cookbooks were addressed to women, and they contained no recipes for barbecue. Mary Randolph included a recipe titled “To Barbecue Shote” (a young hog) in her famous 1824 The Virginia Housewife , but it was for baked pork with stuffing. This all-male tradition has continued up to today, with few exceptions. The North Carolina barbecue expert Bob Garner explains: “Barbecue is just one of those things that men like to do to stay up all night and drink.”
Like any male sport, barbecuing has its own jargon and its own fights between different teams, such as that between the log burners and gassers. According to the Society for the Preservation of Traditional Southern Barbecue, a virtual community of barbecue enthusiasts (see
A discussion of the relative merits of open-pit and closed-pit barbecue can also get a dandy fight going among partisans. Basically, open-pit barbecue is what the original Tainos were doing. Closed-pit involves covered cookers and is practiced more in Texas and the West than elsewhere. The ultimate closed pit is the smoker. The covered pit or smoker is where the smoke ring develops. That’s the telltale pink edge you find just inside a piece of meat. It forms as a result of a chemical re-action between smoke gases and meat pigment. In the Western end of the barbecue belt the smoke ring is a sure sign of genuine down-home barbecue. But log burners on the East Coast have a different opinion. Says one: “It might taste good, but it’s not what we’d call real barbecue.” The only conclusion a non-combatant outsider can draw is that there are a lot of real barbecues, most of them delicious and all of them with their own arcane methods, terms, and tastes.