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The Barbecue: Summer Delight With A Sizzling Past
by Marjorie Dorfman

All of us have our own private ideas about the true meaning behind holiday family reunions and resentments, all of which smolder relentlessly with whatever is cooking on the outdoor grill. Does anyone, however, know where the word and the idea of a barbecue actually came from? Read on for some sizzling thoughts on a very pleasant-tasting subject.

Barbecues conjure images of outdoor family moments that capture families at their sort of best. Memorial Day signals a return to the beaches and the family fold (where sharks and fins of all sizes and shapes congregate in search of ammunition). The origins of both the word and the activity are existentially obscure, although most etymologists believe that barbecue derives from the word barbicu in the language of the Caribbean Taino people (No, they don’t make leather goods. That’s someone else.) The translation is sacred fire pit and is also spelled barbicoa or barabicoa. The word describes a grill for cooking meat consisting of a wooden platform resting on sticks.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word was introduced to the English language by British buccaneer, William Dampier. Food historians are certain that both the word and cooking technique traveled from the Caribbean into Spanish, then French and English. In following the tradition of the activity, barbacoa involves digging a hole in the ground and placing some meat (usually a whole goat, as nasty neighbors and relatives are too smart to be taken off guard) with a pot underneath it so that the running juices render a hearty broth. The meat is then covered with maguey leaves and coal and set alight. It takes a few hours to cook properly.

Two inaccurate theories persist concerning the origins of the word, barbecue. One claims that the word is derived from the French language and began when French visitors to the Caribbean saw a pig being cooked whole and described the process as barbe a queue, meaning from beard to tail. While this sounds logical due to the similar sounds of the words, experts claim it is still as false as the best-made dentures. Another theory states that BBQ dates back to the days when roadhouses and beer joints with pool tables advertised Bar, Beer and Cues. Over time, the phrase was shortened to BBCue and then BBQ.

Initially, the barbecue revolved around the cooking of pork, which was a low maintenance source of food in the 19th century. This was particularly true throughout the Southern United States where the animals were often released to forage for themselves in forest and woodlands. These semi-wild pigs were caught and eaten whenever food or meat supplies ran low. Prior to the American Civil War, Southerners ate approximately five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef they consumed. Every part of the animal was either eaten immediately or saved for later. (This included ears, feet and some of the organs as well.) Pig slaughtering was a time for feasting and celebrations that were sometimes called "pig-pickins." Many food historians believe that the concept of the southern barbecue evolved from these neighborhood gatherings.

Barbecue also refers to a social gathering where food is served, usually outdoors in the early afternoon. These social affairs are also called "cookouts" in the southern USA and barbecue almost always refers to the food (pork BBQ). A grill is the cooking device that is usually employed at these get-togethers.

Each southern region is known for its own particular technique and the differences usually rest in the type of sauce utilized. While the Carolinas tend to specialize in tangier, vinegar-based sauces, Memphis barbecues are renowned for their tomato and vinegar-based sauces. South Carolina obviously couldn’t make a decision because it is the only state known to use all four recognized sauces, which include mustard, vinegar, light and heavy tomato-based sauces. In some Memphis restaurants no sauce at all is used, and the meat is rubbed with dry seasoning (dry rubs) and then smoked over hickory wood. Sauce may be served on the side.

Georgia and Tennessee claim their own particular style. Almost always, pork is served with a sweet tomato-based sauce. The pulled pork sandwich, created by shredding the meat after it is barbecued, is popular in North Carolina and Memphis and is served on a bun topped with coleslaw. In northern Alabama, particularly near Huntsville, barbecue is served with a mayonnaise-based sauce.

Every October in Kansas City, Missouri, a contest known as the American Royal Barbecue is held. Two distinct competitions are held over the course of four days. The first is the Invitational contest, into which competing teams winning other qualifying contests throughout the year gain entry. The Open Contest is the second one, in which any team can compete. This is without a doubt the largest championship barbecue competition in the world and last year alone some 496 teams competed.

Mention must be made here of the World Championship Barbecue contest, which is held annually in Memphis during the May festival. There are others as well, held in virtually every state during the warmer months of the year, usually commencing in April and going through September. The "Ribfest" of Chicago is probably the best known among these. Newspaper columnist, Mike Royko, first organized it back in 1982, and it attracted over 400 contestants. By 1990, it had more than 10,000 attendees and this contest more than any other helped popularize to a much wider audience the distinctions between different regional styles. Competitions are divided between teams of cooks and then sub-divided into separate contests for beef, pork and poultry and for the best barbecue sauces.

If there were one American state more associated with barbecue than any other, Texas would win hands down. Usually barbecue in the Lone Star State involves beef, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone living in the free world. Texas boasts of four regional styles; all with different flavors, methods of preparation, ingredients and cultural origins. Barbecue in the eastern section of the state is an extension of traditional southern traditions spread largely by African-Americans who settled in Houston and Dallas. The methods are similar to those in Tennessee and Arkansas. The protein is usually pork cuts of either shoulder or ribs, which are indirectly slow-smoked over hickory wood and the sauce is sweet, thick and tomato-based.

Smoking cuts of pork and beef with high heat using native oak and pecan has been common practice in Central Texas since its settlement by German and Czech immigrants in the mid 1800s. European settlers did not think of this meat as barbecue, and only began calling it that after hearing Anglo farm workers refer to it by that name. This type of barbecue is traditionally served without sauce and with no sides save saltine crackers, pickles and onions. Elgin hot links, derived directly from German influences, are often found in the Barbecue Belt southeast of Austin (not to be confused with the Bible Belt where nothing tastes nearly as good).

Between the South Texas Plains and Northern Mexico, barbecue styles are as blurry as the borders and are mostly influenced by Mexican tastes. Using the less desirable cuts of meat such as the cow’s head and the diaphragm from which fajitas are made came from this birthplace of the Texas ranching tradition and the Mexican farmhands who were often paid for their work in this manner.

The farmhands would wrap the head in wet maguey leaves and bury it in a pit with hot coals for several hours. (This practice is risky but often a recommended welcome for bill collectors and nasty in-laws.) The meat would then be pulled off and used for tacos (barbacoa tacos) as was the tongue (lengua tacos). Today these barbacoa cuts of meat are usually prepared in an oven in a bain-marie.

The last style of Texas barbecue is derived from the ranching tradition as well, but developed in the western third of the state by Anglo ranchers. "Cowboy Barbecue" (which one might mistakenly assume comes from barbecuing a cowboy) actually involves cooking over an open pit using direct heat from mesquite. Meats utilized are usually beef with brisket and shoulder clods but mutton and goat are sometimes used as well.

In addition to variations throughout the US of A (as Archie Bunker used to say) there are almost as many throughout the world. Australia and New Zealand refer to throwing steaks on the Barbie. (Don’t worry. Our favorite doll and her boyfriend, Ken, are safe) and braai in South Africa refers to this same method of food preparation, which is utilized almost daily in that region. Food is cooked (usually meat) with the heat and hot gasses of a fire, smoking wood or hot coals of charcoal. The process may include the application of a marinade, spice rub or basting sauce added to the meat.

Methods of cooking using more direct high-heat, namely grilling, have come to be associated with practitioners of barbecue. In grilling, a typical meal in some parts of the country means that the food is cooked on a grate directly over hot charcoal. A barbecued meal in that very same family however, usually means that the coals are dispersed either to the sides or at a significant distance from the grate.

To further confuse matters, a smoker (an apparatus, not a person) with a separate firebox may also be used. With this method, hot smoke is drawn past the meat via convection at low temperatures for very slow cooking. Many restaurants prepare barbecues in this manner. Grilling over direct heat is quick and very hot (usually over 500 F) and is done over wood, charcoal or gas fires (and sometimes even the local police department). Arguments may ensue and be as heated as the meal in terms of calling a process barbecue smoking or grilling. (Just eat and enjoy it. Don’t worry about what to call it!)

Other factors that greatly influence barbecue flavor are the choice and combination of woods burned. Those most commonly selected include mesquite, hickory, maple, cherry, pecan, apple and oak. It is important to avoid conifers because they contain resins and tars and impart undesirable chemical flavors. (Of course if you enjoy roasting your socks in a luscious tomato-based marinade, you may want to give it a try!) If you want to use these woods, you should burn them in a catalytic grill, such as a rocket stove, so that the resins and tars are completely burned before coming in contact with the food.

Different types of wood burn at different rates and the heat also varies by the amount of wood and controlling the rate of burn through careful venting. Wood and charcoal are sometimes combined to optimize smoke flavor and consistent burning. Charcoal briquettes or lump charcoal, which unlike briquettes has not been ground and shaped, contains carbon monoxide, is highly combustible and cannot be burned indoors. After slow cooking in a smoker, meat can take on a pinkish color, which is caused by the carbon monoxide fumes.

Many afficianados prefer propane gas to charcoal, which is more authentic in flavor (at least so some say). Still others extol the virtues of a charcoal chimney starter. This is an inexpensive and efficient method for getting a good charcoal fire. The fire can be ignited by a few sheets of newspaper wadded underneath the chimney, an electric iron, or lighting the fire in pyramid formation after charcoal is soaked with a petroleum solvent. The use of solvents is quick and portable, but it can be hazardous, and these can impart undesirable chemical flavors to the meat. Using denatured alcohol (methyl hydrate, methylated spirit) instead of commercial petroleum-based lighter fluids avoids this problem.

The advantage with gas grills is that both lighting and heating are easy to control. Knob-controlled valves on burners make them safe and consistent. Some insist that a lack of true flavor occurs with this method while others claim that gas cooking lets you "taste the meat, not the heat." Also, many grills are equipped with thermometers, simplifying everything. Gas grills are more expensive and are considered much cleaner as they do not result in ashes that have to be disposed of. Proper maintenance can help to reduce that carbon footprint that is always lurking everywhere. A grill can also have a long life by obtaining replacement grill parts when the original wears out.

So whether you prefer to gas grill, propane, lump charcoal, briquette or whatever, the barbecue experience is a formidable one, full of mystery and flavor. Wherever it came from, it doesn’t really matter. What’s that I smell on the grill outside? Excuse me, gotta run and…. eat some barbecue before there’s nothing left!

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Copyright 2008