In America, the precise definition of “barbecue,” both the noun and the verb, is highly localized and contentious. I could spend this entire article running through regional variations, but I’ll make a declaration right up front: Grilling isn’t barbecue if you do it quickly.
So while a New Englander might discuss “barbecuing” fish, hot dogs and burgers on the grill, in parts of the country where barbecue is taken very seriously, that would be known as “grilling.”
In much of the American South, barbecue is by definition slow, based on gradual cooking over indirect heat.
The First Barbecue
Slow-cooking made perfect sense for people with more time than food. It makes the toughest meat tender, so nothing is wasted, and requires little fuel. Taino-Arawak and Carib natives in Hispaniola dried and hot-smoked fish, alligator and deer on lattice frames (Lovegren, 2003), burning green wood to keep the temperature low (Geiling, 2013). They called the frame a babracot and used similar structures for hammocks and temporary shelters. The Spanish conquistadors called the frame barbacoa.
The time required surprised observers. As an early French traveler noted incredulously “A Caribbee has been known, on returning home from fishing fatigued and pressed with hunger, to have the patience to wait the roasting of a fish on a wooden grate fixed two feet above the ground, over a fire so small as sometimes to require the whole day to dress it” (Lovegren, 2003).
Slow, indirect cooking was also practiced by other natives further north. In 1540, in Mississippi, the Chicksaw tribe, in the presence of explorer Hernando de Soto, prepared a feast of pork over the barbacoa (Geiling, 2013). By 1690, the term was so familiar to the English that it appeared in Aphra Behn’s play “The Widow Ranter,” in which a rabble-rouser turns against Captain Dullman, shouting “Let’s Barbicu this Fat Rogue!” (Lee, 2019)
However, it’s not clear that the colonists barbecued; they may have considered it a barbaric custom for natives and slaves from the Caribbean. In 1769, when George Washington would note in his diary that he had attended a “Barbecue,” he may have meant an outdoor social gathering where animals would be roasted whole over a fire, rather than slow-cooked with indirect heat (Lee, 2019).
Wild Pigs Fed the South
The Spanish brought pigs to the Americas and the creatures became a pestilence, overgrowing in the woods (Ehrenfeld, 2015). Left to fend for themselves in the wild, the pigs of the old South were lean and tough. Southerners relied on slow-cooking to harvest every part of the pig and make a poor family’s meat delicious.
Adding sauce to the meat came from the British, who influenced Eastern North Carolina’s classic vinegar-based sauce (think of the British pouring vinegar on chips). Some original recipes added the very local ingredient, oysters (Houck, 2016). Go west within the state, and you’ll find tomato in your sauce, possibly an innovation from Bavarians who liked their pork shoulder sweet (Houck, 2016). In South Carolina, French and German immigrants opted for mustard bases (think of French Dijon and German mustard) (Geiling, 2013).
Brisket Makes Eastern Europeans Feel At Home
The more you travel west, into cattle country, the more likely your barbecue is beef. Early on, it’s likely that slaves brought the cooking method with them from the South. When Germans, Russians, Poles and Czechs arrived by rail in Texas, they brought their own traditions, notably sausage and brisket (Lovegren, 2003). In Lockhart, Texas, for example, the smokemasters have their Polish forebears in mind (Lee, 2019).
Kansas City, Missouri, land of stockyards, cooks it all. In the early 1900s, a man named Henry Perry set up a pushcart where he sold beef, ribs and raccoon wrapped in newspaper. He moved to the Vine Street Corridor, a Black neighborhood where barbecue became a competitive sport. A man named Arthur Bryant gets the credit for turning Kansas City sauce thick and super-sweet (Putka, 2020), a trick that now makes KC sauce the favorite on supermarket shelves.
People have been smoking salmon and other fish, of course, for centuries. East Coast mavens know cold-smoked salmon, aka lox. Heat isn’t involved. However, fish-smoking can become a kind of barbecuing when you add a small amount of very indirect heat to preserve the delicate flesh. The Tlingit Indians (pronounced "KLING-kit") of the Pacific Northwest barbecued salmon for as long as six days for community potlaches or feasts, using smoke from alder wood, a native scrub tree (Lane, 2018).
Salmon candy is a Pacific Northwest treat. Vital Choice marinates fine sockeye or wild king salmon in a light salt brine mixed with organic brown sugar before smoking it in the traditional way over alder. Salmon candy is also sometimes glazed with maple syrup or honey. Either way, you have protein and omega-3s in a concentrated sweet, salty, satisfyingly chewy package. It’s definitely a strategy to try when coaxing little ones to embrace salmon as their favorite. Or you could just put a sweet Kansas City barbecue sauce on a grilled salmon!
Barbecue Conquers the World
By the 1950s, Americans made barbecue an “all-American” symbol. Like other American pastimes, it proved popular, spreading to the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany. It is, in fact, a classic American melting-pot phenomenon, mixing native wisdom with immigrant culture (Lee, 2019). So fire up that small, slow, indirect-heating barbecue!
Final note: For those who find barbecue daunting, direct grilling is often the best way to fire-cook fish. So look here for fish-grilling tips.