Barbecue: What The Heck Is It Anyway?

Barbecue: What The Heck Is It Anyway?

Where I’m from, folks like to argue about what defines barbecue. Opinions abound, but I would argue the answer is in the word itself, which can mean a device, a food style, a method of cooking or a social event.

Historians and etymologists and culinary anthropologists and the like generally hold that “barbecue” evolved from barbacoa, which roughly translated from several old Caribbean dialects means “a rack made of sticks,” which could be used for a wide array of purposes including cooking. Now if one is going to cook on sticks, which are composed of a flammable material (wood) one would want to keep one’s barbacoa well away from the fire doing the cooking. This means that the food would cook slowly and there would probably be a fair amount of exposure to smoke. Whether or not the pirates and privateers that roamed the Caribbean randomly capturing and cooking wild pigs became known as “buccaneers” due to their savvy with barbacoas, I refuse to speculate, but I totally buy that slow cooking over a smoldering fire pretty much defines the “barbecue” process whether sticks are used or not.

If we accept the above proposition then we must also accept that any food prepared via smoldering fire may be referred to as “barbecued” and yes I do mean any food be it animal, fruit or vegetable. If you serve me something called “barbecue” (notice the absence of the “d”), however, then you’d better be handing over a hunk of critter that has been slow cooked until tender and smokey. Please note that if the fire in question is hot, then the food in question is “grilled” not “barbecued.” Do you hear me California? Well do ya?

As far as I’m concerned the most important connotation of “barbecue” is a social event where the food “barbecue” is prepared. In his personal journal George Washington made a record of attending a “barbecue” in Alexandria, Va., in May of 1769. He notes that he “stayed all night” and that tells us that the tradition of standing around in the outdoors for hours on end, drinking and watching a pig (or a steer in Texas … or a sheep in certain parts of Kentucky) slowly cook, has been with us a while. This caveman ritual is primal stuff, which should be respected and repeated a heck of a lot more often than it is.

So build yourself a barbecue and throw a barbecue where you barbecue some barbecue. Just know that as far as I’m concerned there is one thing the word “barbecue” never refers to …

… a sauce.

Okay St. Louis, come and get me.


Add yours
  1. 1
    Jim Bacon

    I’ve been serving up BBQ from my pit for a long time now, and yes, my sauce is BBQ as well since I make it from the drippings every time. Otherwise I agree 100% with Alton.

  2. 2

    This is a food obsessed society
    Result: obesity, rise in diabetic children, supermarkets throwing out good food , while some people go hungry, more overprocessed food, overpackaged food, less home cooked fresh food, less backyard gardens, more useless lawns !
    To not overthink barbecue……to most people in whatever part of the Country, it means simple food with family and/or friends, which may or may not include barbecue sauce ! !

  3. 3

    I unfortunately hear another abuse of related terms… grilled used when griddled is the actual technique used.


  4. 4

    Another Californian checking in here. While I agree that the proper vernacular is grilling out (as my friends in the southeast would call it) I still will say that I just made BBQ chicken for my family tonight. Yes it was on a grill. Yes it was over high (although indirect) heat. And yes I’m okay with this. I do, however, appreciate knowing the differences so when the southerners look at me funny, at leas I know why. Gotta love good ol Cali.

  5. 5
    justin moore

    From Saint Louis can say that the whole sauce covered pork steak thing is much less a thing these days than it was in the nineties we actually have a large Texan transplant population and Saint Louisians that go back and forth so our barbeque has evolved a lot in the nearly 30 years. Really if you have a show here in the fall swing by Pappy’s or Salt + Smoke. I think it’ll surprise you.

  6. 6

    Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo Buffalo…

    Mmmmmmm barbecue flavored Buffalo wings… Om nom nom nom nom.

  7. 8
    George Erdner

    In French, if one cooks an entire critter, from the “beard to the tail”, it is cooked “Barbe à queue”. Ergo, a “Barbeàqueue” is a whole critter (usually a pig) cooked from one end to the other.

  8. 9
    Jack Vickers

    Keep in mind that another term for “barbacoa” was “boucan”. And the hunters who plied their trade on Île à Vache and what is now Haiti were known as “boucaniers”, who also passed time raiding any Spanish settlements that tried to get a foothold and used deceptive lights to lure passing ships onto the rocks and stealing their cargo. Stir the actual Henry Morgan into the mix, and you get the Brethren of the Coast, the original buccaneers.

  9. 10

    This is what I like about you Alton. You are not afraid to speak to the root of the word! We have skewed this hodgepodge language of Latin decent until we have no idea what we are talking about. Don’t always agree with you, but I always like how you say it!

  10. 14

    I could not agree more
    if its a barbecue , then you stand around drink socialize and have a slow cooked critter with a lot of smoke
    and slow cooking.

  11. 15

    I can’t find the recipe for the Grilling Chicken in the Ceramic Flower pot with the ceramic lid that he used a burner in the bottom and 2 pie pans with wood chips! Then one the show he told how to BBQ a pork loin and mentioned how to do it in the oven! Looking for the recipes he used in those episodes! Anybody have them? Looking for any of the dry spice rubs for chicken and pork etc. Thank you in advance!

  12. 16
    Derrick Chapman

    A typically overlooked point in the discussion/argument/war regarding barbecue: the purpose of the cooking method. We barbecue (slow cooking over indirect heat with smoke) in order to render out the fat from a not-very-lean piece of meat. You can’t barbecue a shrimp, a chicken, or a potato chip.

  13. 17

    In my humble and unqualified opinion, barbecue is simply a cooking method. (Begins ducking onslaught of tomatoes and insults). Time and temperature defines just about every other cooking method and, as such, barbecue can be summed up as “low heat, smoke and time”. Everything else is preference. And I think that’s the key. Strip away the social implications, regional variations and personal opinions bordering on religion; and you get what…. Another means of cooking. Another way to make tough meat tender, release nutrients, add flavor, increase depth and aid in absorption. In my best Dazed and Confused Matthew McConoughy voice, “It’s all just chemistry, maaaan…”.

  14. 19
    Chris Kirchner

    Going to agree and disagree with the sauce, if you’re cooking with mopping or making your own sauce with drippings while cooking, thumbs up. However, sauce added later to alter or mask flavors, you’re doing it wrong.

  15. 20
    Brian Lindahl

    I’ll disagree slightly on the sauce. There’s something about the caramelized tomato flavor that only comes from the judicious application of sauce late in the cooking process that I haven’t found any other way to produce. Sun-dried tomatoes come close, but not really.

  16. 21
    James Sanders

    I agree, a sauce in connection with barbecue always said to me that something went wrong in the fire management or time management departments and something was necessary to provide moisture or to try and cover up something that shouldn’t otherwise be there. Let the meat stand on its own, serve a sauce or two separate on the side…for those ketchup type people.

+ Leave a Comment