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For the love of Barbecue

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George Gordon Moore barbecue (1927).

 Being a vegetarian, it may seem strange that I am writing about cooking meat. To be honest, I love the smell of barbecue.  There must be a part of my ancestral brain that gets triggered, because my stomach starts to growl every time I smell the sweet smoke of a barbecue.

Since prehistoric time humans from all over the world have been cooking meats over fire. In the United States, we generally refer to outdoor cooking over a charcoal or wood fire as barbecue. The word barbecue has multiple meanings:  It is a style of cooking meat over an open fire, a structure or framework for cooking, a food, a flavor, and an outdoor social gathering.

As I was researching American barbecue, I discovered that there are regional distinctions in the ways Americans barbecue. What brings all these types of barbecue styles together is the process of slow cooking the meat over low heat.

The particulars of barbecue vary widely.  Preferred methods range from open to closed pits, meat can be pig (in the East) or beef (in the West), sauce can be wet or dry (and then it’s a rub), and the fuel can be one of many varieties of wood—or  it can be charcoal. Barbecue purists will insist that gas grilling is not barbecue since grilling is a high heat quick cooking process. 

Removing the barbecued beef from the pits, Los Angeles Sheriff's Barbecue (1930-41)

The United States has a long tradition of barbecues as a form of social gathering. In fact, George Washington, the founder of our country, wrote in his diaries about the many barbicue [sic] he attended or hosted. Many of us in the United States will be celebrating July 4, Independence Day, at a barbecue. 

Here are some interesting facts that you might wish to share with family and friends:

– Buccaneers, the infamous pirates, originally cooked and sold barbecue along seaports of  the  Americas . Their name is derived from boucan (bucan/ buccan) the native South American word for the wooden framework in which meat was roasted or smoked over an open fire. Buccaneers or Buccaniers originally meant someone who dries and smokes flesh on a boucan.

– In 1793, following the ceremonial laying of the United States Capitol cornerstone, a 500-pound ox was barbecued.

 – In mid the 19th century, Skilton Dennis opened the first commercial barbecue business in the United States in Ayden, North Carolina. His many descendents still carry on the tradition in Ayden.

How they cook their fish. Engraving by Theodor de Bry after watercolor by John White. 1590

If you want to learn more about the history of barbecue you can use our guide to BBQ History for a list of books, articles and Websites on the topic.

 For a more inclusive exploration of barbecue you might wish to watch a lecture on Barbecue: History of the World’s Oldest Culinary Art presented at the Library in 2005 by barbecue aficionado Steve Raichlen.

Comments (7)

  1. thank you why we work so hard to have agood time outside cooking i want to thank the solders in the armed forces and let them know when i barbecue i always say thank you for your loyal service and let the red white and blue with the old 50 stars wave high above every barbecue pit,

  2. Barbeque seems to have gotten more popular lately, even having a reality tv show based on bbq competitions. That’s really interesting that George Washington had barbeques… I knew people had been slow cooking meat for centuries all over the world, but I didn’t know the tradition of the barbeque as a social gathering went back that far.

  3. It appears that 1830 date above maybe in error as Skliton Dennis was born 12 March 1842 and died 2 November 1900… Reference

    • @Billy- This is curious. The great-great-great grandson of Skilton M. Dennis, Pete Jones, suggested this date. I consulted Steven Raichlen’s BBQ USA (2006) and Bob Garner’s North Carolina barbecue (1996), which provides the same date. I also consulted the original Federal Census records and found the same discrepancies. Census records are not always correct and may contain errors due to ineligible handwriting or poor reporting. However in this case I find it necessary to remove the 1830 date until it can be proven otherwise. Thank you for hard work tracking down your family’s history. We appreciate you letting us know about this possible error.

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