The Story of BBQ

SIG Samples ,

This article is excerpted with permission from a more detailed and thorough history of barbecue by NBBQA member Meathead on his website


Barbecue Made Human Civilization Possible


Homo erectus probably first tasted cooked meat after a forest fire burned animals, and it was good. Eventually early humans developed helpful skills like domesticating dogs to help with the hunt and husbanding animals that tasted best. Meat provided more protein per chew than anything else, and cooked meat made chewing easier. The family circle and tribal structure evolved so that men became hunters and women became cooks. Ergo, the first pitmasters were probably women.


Once early cooks learned that cooked meats tasted better than raw, they eventually figured out that smoked foods not only tasted swell, they kept longer. We now know this is because there are antimicrobial compounds in smoke and because slow smoking dries foods out, depriving bacteria of moisture to grow. In the days before refrigeration, smoking, drying, and salting meat were clever strategies for preserving perishable foods. This allowed hunting tribes to make a kill and, unlike other animals, they did not have to gorge themselves before the prey spoiled. If they were migratory, they could smoke, dry, and salt foods and take it on the road with them.


According to barbecue historian Dr. Howard L. Taylor, the first cooking implements were almost certainly a wooden fork or spit to hold the meat over the fire. Spit roasting is common around the world and for many years was the major barbecue cooking method. Baking an animal, vegetables, or bread in a hot pit in the ground was also an early development. Wooden frames were later used to hold meat over the fire, but they often held the meat well above the fire to keep the wood from burning, which resulted in the meat cooking slowly and absorbing more smoke. The gridiron, similar to a grate on a modern grill, was developed soon after the Iron Age started, which led to grilling and barbecue as we know it.


The Hebrew Old Testament contains what may be the first detailed plans for the design of a barbecue. In Exodus, chapter 27, Moses brings down the 10 Commandments and tells his flock that God wants them to construct a tabernacle for the Ark for the Covenant, including an altar for burnt offerings. It stood about 4 1/2 feet high about 7 1/2 feet long, contained fleshooks, firepans, ash pans, shovels, basins, and a grate, all made of bronze.


Many scholars think techniques for low and slow smoke roasting began in China where some early kitchens had special devices for smoking meats. In Europe, cooking in open fireplaces over wood and with plenty of smoke was commonplace, and all manner of clever iron grids, reflectors, and rotating devices were developed. Somewhere along the way someone invented the smokehouse. Grilled and smoked meats, especially pork and sausage, are deeply woven into German and Czech culinary traditions, and this influence is particularly strong in the Carolina and Texas barbecue traditions where their immigrants settled.


New World barbacoa and the etymology of the word barbecue

In 1492 Christopher Columbus made the first of his four voyages from Spain to the New World landing in what he called Hispanola, present day Dominican Republic and Haiti, and then went on to Cuba, and the Bahamas. The first tribesmen he encountered were Arawak Indians. One of their favorite methods of cooking and preserving food was to place it on a wooden frame above the fire. It was built of green wood so it would not burn, had four vertical poles to hold up a grid of more green wood cross pieces, and was usually tall enough to prevent the wood and food from incinerating. The word for this device, the Spanish said, was barbacoa.


The Spanish explorer Gonzalo Fernández De Oviedo y Valdés was the first to use the word in print in 1526. Other European explorers reported that natives in northern South America may have called their version of the barbacoa a babracot or babricot or barboka.  However, these were all names for a wooden rack, not just a cooking device. Other early explorers described similar barbacoas being used to store food above the damp ground and out of reach of animals, as well as a bed for sleeping above the snakes and insects.


In 1540, near what is now Tupelo, Mississippi, Hernando de Soto collaborated with the Chickasaw tribe on a feast featuring pork brought from Spain and prepared on a barbacoa. The Spanish adopted the cooking style and refined it. Eventually this method found its way north to the colonies in Virginia and the Carolinas where they doused the meat with a favorite condiment from home, vinegar. Vinegar remains the major ingredient of most barbecue sauces in Eastern North Carolina and South Carolina to this day. However, the German settlers there were fond of mustard, resulting in the classic mustard based barbecue sauce of South Carolina.


Other settlers brought their own culinary traditions with them and the sauces that they applied to the grilled and smoked barbecue meats of the New World reflected their preferences. Today, the most popular ingredient in barbecue sauce is ketchup and one can make the argument that most of these sauces are just a type of ketchup. Ketchup is tomato paste, vinegar, sugar and spices. The standard grocery store Kansas City style barbecue sauce is ketchup, vinegar, sweeteners, herbs, spices, and liquid smoke. Only the ratios are different.


The evolution of barbecoa into barbecue

The taste of slowly smoke roasted meat with flavorful sauce grew in popularity, especially in the southern United States. Slaves did most of the cooking, maintained the smokehouses, and were given responsibility for preparing open pit barbecues for big celebrations such as weddings, holidays, and political gatherings. George Washington had a large smokehouse and a large still at his plantation at Mt. Vernon, VA. On May 27, 1769, he wrote in his diary "Went in to Alexandria [VA] to a Barbecue and stayed all Night." So the tradition of partying all night with outdoor cooked meat and whiskey can be traced back at least this far. Washington even hosted "a Barbicue of my own giving at Accatinck" in September 1773.


In the pre-Civil War South, the plantation master got to eat the best cuts of meat. They ate the tenderloin from along the pig's back, "high on the hog" (yes, that's where the expression came from), while the slaves got the tougher, more gristle-riddled cuts. Raw pork was often pickled by storing in a barrel of brine. It didn't take them long to learn the concepts of low and slow cooking with smoke to make tender, juicy meats from these less desirable cuts.


Eventually the saplings used to hold the meat over the open pits in the ground were replaced by metal gridirons, and before long the pits were built with stones or bricks above ground. In 1897, Ellsworth Zwoyer patented the charcoal briquette. The briquette really took off when, in the 1920s, Henry Ford, in collaboration with Thomas Edison and EB Kingsford, began commercial manufacturing by making them from sawdust and wood scraps from Ford's auto plants.


Modern barbecue becomes portable

Brick and fieldstone barbecues were common in parks and backyards, but they were a pain to build. Somewhere along the way somebody cut a steel drum in half lengthwise, hinged the two parts together like a clamshell, and attached four legs. Next thing you know, Popular Mechanics is running plans for making a barbecue from an oil barrel.


In 1948, H.J. Heinz introduced the first nationally distributed barbecue sauce, but long before then many cooks bottled and sold their sauces locally. Click here to see a history of barbecue sauce. Also in 1948 Grant "Hasty" Hastings introduced the Hasty-Bake oven with a hood, and an adjustable height charcoal tray. They are still made today, and the modern version is one of my all-time favorite grills. Three years later George Stephen, Sr., frustrated by his inability to control the heat in his backyard grill, had the welders at the Weber Brothers Metal Works where he worked, cut up a buoy. The Weber Kettle was born, with much of the early marketing touting the merits of “covered barbecuing”.  


In the 1960 Walter Koziol's Modern Home Products produced the first consumer gas grill in Antioch, IL, the Charmglow Perfect Host. During the 1970s, Char-Broil became the first brand to put a liquid propane tank and a grill in one box. Gas grills soon became more popular than charcoal because they are easier to start and require less cleanup. Meanwhile, hungry Texas oil rig welders began building heavy duty steel cookers from oil barrels, huge pipes, and large propane tanks creating tubular "pits" that could be mounted on boat trailers and towed from jobsite to jobsite. Some were fitted with boxes on the side to hold logs and allow the cook to smoke meats with indirect heat, low and slow. Nowadays they have gotten complex and expensive.


In the 1980s high tech motorized temperature and smoke controlled devices evolved for use in restaurants and by caterers, and today they can be controlled by computer. In the 2000s grills and smokers that burn pellets made from sawdust started gaining popularity. The latest have digital controls making backyard grilling, roasting, and smoking as easy as indoors.


Who knows what's next?