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.