Is Barbecue Barbaric? A Small Treatise on a Large and Controversial Subject

Roasted Whole Pig (Used with permission of Thai Yin.)
Roasted Whole Pig (Used with permission of Thai Yin.)

The All-American favorite cooking method, “barbecue,” sounds uncannily like “barbarism.” When warm nights and hotter days rev up cooks’ tempers as summer suddenly seems interminable, cooks turn to the trusty (and maybe rusty) BBQ grill and primal techniques of searing meat over an open flame. Age-old these methods are, indeed. And frankly barbaric, to the Western mind anyway. Even if there is no link linguistically between the two words. (“Barbarian” comes from the Greek bárbaros, meaning “the sound foreigners make.”)

Grilling, or burning, animal carcasses on fire began naturally when humans began hunting and cooking their kill. Later, the holocausts — “sacrificial offering that is consumed entirely by flames” — found in many religions emphasized the spiritual aspect of eating the flesh of once-breathing animals.

But even the English roasted whole animals in massive fireplaces. Hannah Glasse tells us so.

Christopher Columbus, Portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo (Library of Congress)
Christopher Columbus, Portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo (Library of Congress)

Christopher Columbus, the “discoverer” of the New World, stayed with Andrés Bernáldez in Seville and showed Bernáldez his journals from his second voyage. In it appeared notes about what Columbus saw on a beach in what is now Guantánamo Bay, Cuba: Indians cooking four “quintals of fish,” along with two rabbits and two serpents (iguanas), which Columbus described as fearsome with diamond-shaped scales running along their spines. This method of cooking ensure the preservation of highly desired meat by both smoking/cooking meat and driving away flies, whose eggs spelled hunger for humans if maggots infested fresh flesh.

Barbecue’s origins may be mysterious, but most linguistic experts cite Haiti as its place of birth. Based on an Arawak technique of cooking meat laid over grids of branches, the Spanish conquerors of Hispaniola (comprising present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) quickly adopted barbecue. The Indians named the technique “barbicoa,” meaning “”sacred fire pit” in Taino, their native language. Others interpret the original word to have been “barbacoa,” meaning something like “four sticks in the ground, to cook meat over fire.” Later, French pirates arrived in Hispaniola and also took up the tradition of barbecue. Their description of barbecue, de la barbe a la queue (from the beard to the tail), may have also influenced our current word for grilling over coals or wood or gas.

Most linguists believe this last version to be false. Other wags have it that BBQ, shorthand for barbecue, derive from “Beer, Burgers, and Cue (pool or billiards)” or “Beer, Burgers, and Que (shorthand for “barbecue”). Andrew Warnes, in his quite controversial book Savage BBQ: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America’s First Food, covers the topic in detail, focusing on the inherent violence of the act of grilling. “Invented and exaggerated, held tight in perennial repulsion, barbecue belonged to this new cultural compulsion to pit English gentlemen against the barbaric world beyond Europe,” Warnes states. And he refutes The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), too, along the way.

DeBry's Engraving of "Barbacoa"

Die-hards insist that barbecue signifies pit cooking, or – barring a pit – at least a large metal contraption of dimensions to cradle a whole hog. So in the United States, there’s really two things going on when the word “barbecue” crops ups: grilling over coals and roasting in some sort of pit-like affair.

No matter the niceties of the term, barbecue really is an American thing. The Flemish artist Theodor DeBry created interesting, if not a hundred-percent accurate, renditions of Caribbean Indian life in a series of copper engravings. One of those illustrated barbecuing or grilling. He also portrayed acts of cannibalism, igniting deep-seated European fears of what they perceived as Native Americans’ inherent “barbarism.”

Cooking foods over fire obviously began with the dawn of humankind and even as late as the Age of Discovery/Conquest, cooking over a direct fire was hardly something extraordinary. However, the native residents of the Caribbean, as well as those living in what is now Virginia and Massachusetts, perfected the pit method of barbecuing, a technique that Europeans practiced less and less.

Think of the New England Clambake. Or the ones on the Northwest Coast, held by indigenous people such as the Makahs.

Europeans continued to cook over fire in immense hearths, at least in the great houses of royalty and nobility. Most people who could do so built houses with hearths meant for serious cooking.

Pit Cooking (Used with permission.)
Pit Cooking (Used with permission.)

The English cookbook author,  Hannah Glasse, in her The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1769, featured a recipe for roast whole pig cooked on a spit, similar in function and practice to the grilling taking place on the beaches of the Caribbean. Nearly a hundred years before, William Dampier, an English pirate, saw native Arawaks cooking in a similar manner. The OED states that Dampier’s description signified the first time the word “barbecue” (or nearly so) was used in the English language: New Voyage round the World of 1699: “And lay there all night, upon our Borbecu’s, or frames of Sticks, raised about 3 foot from the Ground”.

Smokehouse in Galax, Virginia
Smokehouse in Galax, Virginia

Barbecuing, like baseball, quickly became an American pastime. The Jamiesons state in their book, Born to Grill, that most American cookbooks failed to mention barbecue straight out, although an English cookbook, the Encyclopedia of Practical Cookery (1890), discussed American barbecue, primarily from a social point of view, as a focus for gathering for various community purposes. The Backcountry Housewife, by Kate Moss and Kathryn Hoffman, and other authors suggest that grilling added an important aspect to daily menus. The Williamsburg Art of Cookery quotes a recipe from Toano, Virginia, for “Barbecued Squirrel.” And in The Virginia Housewife (1824), Mary Randolph goes a step further with “To Barbecue Shote”:

This is the name given in the southern states to a fat young hog, which, when the head and feet are taken off, and it is cut into four quarters, will weigh six pounds per quarter. Take a fore quarter, make several incisions between the ribs, and stuff it with rich forcemeat ; put it in a pan with a pint of water, two cloves garlic, pepper, salt, two gills of red wine, and two of mushroom catsup, bake it and thicken the gravy with butter and brown flour ; it must be jointed and the ribs cut across before it is cooked, or it cannot be carved well ; lay in the dish with the ribs uppermost ; if it not be sufficiently brown, add a little sugar to the gravy ; garnish with balls.

Fannie Farmer, that doyenne of culinary measurements, included a recipe for Barbecued Ham in the 1919 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, passed down to me my grandmother:

Soak thin slices of  ham one hour in lukewarm water ; drain, wipe, and cook in a hot frying-pan until slightly browned. Remove to serving dish and add to fat in pan three tablespoons vinegar mixed with one and one-half teaspoons mustard, one-half  teaspoon sugar, and one-eighth teaspoon paprika. When thoroughly heated, pour over ham and serve at once.

Once Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer of Pennsylvania patented his design for charcoal briquettes in 1897, barbecuing—as in grilling over coals—took off in a big way. But along the way, another form of “barbecuing” became popular, that of cooking foods in a saucy, “barbecued” in the oven or with sauce added, as the recipes from Mrs. Randolph and Fannie Farmer suggest. Southerners tended to think of barbecue with sauces  – vinegar, a hand-down from the British and mustard from the Germans – and emphasized pork, while Americans in the southwest focused on grilling beef, often over mesquite coals, a trend that became popular again the 1990s. The Australians call it cooking on the “barbie,” as anyone who goes to an Outback restaurant, a chain restaurant everywhere in the U.S. And South African hold their “braais” tradition dear, too. Hordes of people attend the American Barbecue Society‘s events each year, too.

Certain barbecuing rules have also evolved, which make cooking over fire more successful:

1)      Rub oil on grill racks to prevent grilled foods from sticking;

2)      Marinate meat and fish to help preserve moisture and add flavor;

3)      Add herb branches and orange peels to the coals to impart a more exotic taste to the meat;

4)      Cook fish in a rack designed for fish cookery, a stainless rack of small mesh with a handle that allows fish to be turned over easily on the grill, eliminating the chance that the fish will break apart while turning it;

5)      Baste fish with marinade or oil during the cooking process;

6)      Soak all wooden skewers in water for at least an hour before grilling; this prevents the wood from burning;

7)      Consider pork to be done when no red juices run out of the meat;

8)      Cook chicken and spareribs before grilling for more tender meat;

9)      Use a clean plate for the cooked meat, and never reuse the plate that you put raw meat on;

10)  Cook grilled foods over glowing coals, not roaring fires.

So fire up the grill and get to work on that sublime grilling experience.

The following recipes are a snap and make good leftovers, too.

Barbecue played, and still plays, an important role in American life – political, social, and cultural, and Robert Moss does a pretty good job of dissecting the subject in Barbecue: A History of an American Institution (2010).

But it wouldn’t be right to end this short digression into barbecuing and grilling with such a flippant ending.

Grilling Pig on a Spit
Grilling Pig on a Spit

Cooking over smoke and fire evokes a sense of primitiveness, a feeling of reverting to the past, when the pioneers and explorers and hunters squatted on their haunches near campfires, cooking the day’s kill in the crackling flames. Hearing a pig’s flesh sizzling in the heat or seeing the huge carcasses slowly cooking over red embers arouses  primal emotions, and an almost visceral feeling of power, of gratitude for the sacrifice made by the pig. But at the same time, there’s gladness that the shoe is not on the other foot, so to speak … .

“Barbecue” DOES sound uncannily like “barbarism.” And in its own way, it is. And that has always been so.

The following recipes are grilled, just to be clear, OK?


Serves 4-6

2 ½-3 lb. frying chicken, giblets and wing tips removed

Juice of two lemons

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 T. freshly and coarsely ground pepper

Cut the chicken into a butterfly position, by cutting all the way from the neck to the tail through the back along the backbone. Spread open the chicken on a flat surface like a small cutting board. With breast side up, press the chicken open with your hand or the side of a large cleaver. Cut the thigh/leg section just enough to spread out slightly from the body. Do the same thing for the wings. When spread out on the grill, the chicken’s shape will resemble that of a butterfly.

Put the chicken into a large stainless steel, glass, or ceramic bowl. Pour the lemon juice and olive oil over the chicken. Turn to coat well. Sprinkle chicken with the black pepper on both sides. Press the pepper into the skin. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Marinate chicken at least one hour before grilling (if chicken is marinated more than one hour, refrigerate).

Heat grill until coals are glowing. Brown chicken on both sides, being careful when you turn the chicken. Place the chicken away from the coals and cover the grill. Cook about 1 ½ hours. This indirect cooking will reduce the chances of the chicken burning.

Serve with pan-fried potatoes and a green salad.

Fish Skewers in Morocco (Used with permission of Xosé Castro Roig.)
Fish Skewers in Morocco (Used with permission of Xosé Castro Roig.)


Serves 4

Called chermoula, this sauce testifies to the impact of the spice trade on the cooking of the Arabs and the rest of the medieval world.

1 onion finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed, then minced

4 T. chopped fresh cilantro leaves

½ t. saffron powder or filaments (if filaments, pound in mortar and pestle)

1 t. salt

1 t. paprika

¼ t. cayenne pepper

¼ cup olive oil

Juice of 1-2 lemons, freshly squeezed

1 ½ lbs. boneless fish (tuna, cod, etc.), cut into 1-inch cubes

Gently mix all ingredients in a stainless steel or glass bowl. Push fish pieces onto skewers and grill until fish is lightly browned all over. Turn skewers occasionally during cooking. Serve with GRILLED GREEN PEPPERS and yellow rice. Or place fish in pita bread and eat with garlicky yogurt and cucumbers.

C. Bertelsen)
Green Peppers and Onions (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)


Serves 4

(Note: Recipe can be made with red or yellow sweet peppers, or a combination of all three.)

4 large green peppers

4 T. (1/4 cup) freshly squeezed lemon juice

4 T. (1/4 cup) extra virgin olive oil

3 cloves of garlic, mashed and well-minced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Grill the peppers over low-heat coals until skin blackens; turn peppers occasionally to blacken all over. Remove peppers from the flames and place in a plastic bag. Seal the bag and set aside for about 10 minutes. This allows the skin to soften and makes it easier to remove it. Peel the skin off the peppers with a knife and the help of running water. Remove seeds and veins inside peppers, too. Slice peppers into strips approximately ½-inch wide. Set aside in a ceramic, glass, or stainless steel bowl.

Mix the remaining ingredients together in a glass bowl. Pour over the peppers and let marinate at room temperature until fish or other grilled meat is done. Peppers are also delicious with grilled pork served with garlicky mashed potatoes.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen (with minor additions in 2016)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s