The History of Barbecuing
Despite the not-so-favourable British weather, barbecuing is still one of our favourite summer past times. Give us even a vaguely warm evening or Saturday afternoon and the delicious smell of charcoal and roasting meet can be detected wafting from gardens all across the country. Indeed, such is our devotion to the barbecue that special mini grills are now available for apartment balconies and smaller outdoor spaces. Who needs a garden eh? But where did it all start? Before the first Aussie threw the first shrimp on the charcoal barbecue and the first Brit burned (but undercooked) the first chicken wing, who were the pioneers of the method we have come to know as barbecuing? Well, as with most traditions that have evolved with time, there is some debate as to where the practice was first carried out and by whom. However it is generally agreed that, initially at least, barbecuing as a method of cooking meat was a necessity rather than the social event it has become today, and was possibly invented in the West Indies. Today we take simple things like refrigeration and preservation for granted, but thousands of years ago, the only way to prevent meat from spoiling was to cook it as soon as the animal was slaughtered. One of the methods favoured by the people of the islands was slow cooking in a pit of hot stones and the term they used for this practice was ‘barbacoa’. As is the case today, slow cooking was really only necessary for poorer quality meat, particularly pork, which was known to make people decidedly unwell if not cooked properly, so it was not until much later that other meats like beef and chicken were cooked in this way on a barbeque. It was probably the Spanish conquistadores who first introduced pigs to the Americas, and they in turn learned how to cook meat with smoke from the Native American Indians. This was a new take on the tradition of ‘barbacoa’ and one that became very popular in the southern states of America. However it was with the growth of the slave trade that barbecuing became particularly widespread in this part of the world and around this time also that English colonists first applied the term ‘barbecue’ to this type of cooking. Plantation owners soon realised that slaves who were spending long hard days in the cotton and tobaccos fields were going to need proper nourishment if they were to remain strong and healthy. It was in the colonists’ best interests to provide their slaves with high energy food, but on the other hand they wanted this food to be as cheap and easy to prepare as possible. The solution was barbecued pork, and though slaves were by no means feasting on hog meat on a regular basis, the ‘hog pickings’ that they were occasionally ‘treated’ to supplement their largely nutrient-deficient diet. Soon barbecued pork was the staple diet of much of the southern population, so much so in fact that plantation owner William Byrd remarked in one of his diaries that hog meat was ‘the staple commodity of North Carolina . . . and with pitch and tar makes up the whole of their traffic . . . these people live so much upon swine's flesh that it don't only incline them to the yaws, and consequently to the . . . [loss] of their noses, but makes them likewise
extremely hoggish in their temper, and many of them seem to grunt rather than speak in their ordinary conversation’ So then, how did barbecuing come to be the social gathering that it is today, where we invite people around for a whole evening or afternoon of chat, beers and deliciously smoked meat? Again the social aspect of the process goes back to colonial times when the actual catching of the meat for roasting was cause for celebration in itself. The poorest farmers would let their hogs roam wild in the woods where the pigs would forage for food and essentially rear themselves. These pigs would naturally prove to be more difficult to catch than domesticated animals that were kept in pens and fed on a traditional pig diet of scraps and leftovers. So the hunting and eventual killing of these wild pigs became something of an event for the local community. The farmers would return at the end of the day with a pig across their shoulders and a spit would be erected around which people would gather to celebrate. This tradition of feeding the local community led to the development of the very first commercial barbecues in the southern states. Barbecue pits were erected along public roads and local people paid to enjoy a plate of the freshly roasted hog meat. These days, the catching of the meat is not cause for celebration in itself (though anyone who has tackled the heaving throngs to be found gathered around the fresh meat aisle in Sainsbury’s on a summer Saturday might well disagree), but BBQs are still a favoured way to celebrate everything from a birthday to an engagement to a christening. Unlike our colonial ancestors, our preferred meat is usually beef or chicken rather than pork. However, despite the evolution of the menu, the basic method has remained unchanged and as long as there’s smoke, a grill and an outdoor location, we are well within our rights to call our gathering a BBQ.