The History of Barbecuing

There's a rich tradition behind everyone's favorite summer cooking style.

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By: KM

The 4th of July holiday is practically synonymous with barbecues. The whole summer actually is an excuse to fire up the grill; all it takes is some combination of burgers, hot dogs and snacks to qualify as a cookout. But where exactly did this tradition begin? Has it always been about the act of grilling up meat and veggies, or is it more about the gathering of a large group outdoors? Like most things, barbecues have a long, evolved history since they first popped up on the scene.

It all started back in 1526 (or so legend says). According to, the official origin of the term "barbecue" is unknown; however, the first written document of the term is from a Spanish explorer’s journal entry upon landing in the Caribbean. A Caribbean Indian tribe called the Tainoused the term “barabicu” (or “sacred pit” in the Taino language) to describe the act of slow-cooking over a raised wooden platform. Due to the region and their diet at that time, the Taino was likely slow-roasting fish, but a cooking style was born.

The Spaniards began calling that style "barbacoa" and can be attributed to bringing it across the globe. According to the Smithsonian, as the Spanish explorers departed the Caribbean and turned their expeditions north, towards the U.S., they brought the ‘barbacoa’ cooking technique with them. In 1540, as recorded by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, the Chicksaw tribe located in what is modern-day Mississippi, cooked a feast of pork over the barbacoa (thanks to the surplus of pig in that region).

Eventually, the technique made its way to the colonies and barbecues continued to make appearances throughout history. In fact, according to Life Science, one of the first laws ever enacted in the colony of Virginia during the 1650s forbid the discharge of guns at a barbecue.

In 1755, the word “barbecue” was entered into Samuel Johnson’s The Dictionary of the English Language, according to the historical website Today I Found Out. The entry reads: “to ba’rbecue. A term used in the West-Indies for dressing a hog whole; which, being split to the backbone, is laid flat upon a large gridiron, raised about two foot above a charcoal fire, with which it is surrounded.”

When the United States won the Revolutionary War, the events were commemorated with barbecues that lasted for days. Steven Raichlen, author of Planet Barbecue and host of Primal Grill on PBS, claims that Abraham Lincoln’s parents celebrated their wedding with a good ol’ fashioned BBQ and that George Washington’s diaries were filled with references to barbecues, including one that lasted for three days.

According to Robert Moss, the author of Barbecue: The History of an America institution, barbecue became a more formalized social ritual, used to unite people during electoral campaigns in the Jacksonian era. As the Smithsonian confirms, this style of cooking emerged popular thanks to its ability to cheaply and quickly feed large groups of people. By the 19th century, the culinary technique was well established across the U.S., but heavily favored in the South where pork became the primary meat at barbecues. Actual restaurants with permanent pits started to replace itinerant road-side stands, and even McDonald’s started out by serving BBQ as their main menu item.

From there, according to Owlcation, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford created the first industrial “charcoal briquets,” which allowed barbecuing to take place in a more casual, independent setting. Traditionally, cooks would roast a full animal over a flame, while continuously turning it to ensure even cooking. But, the Ford Briquet allowed the everyday chef to take advantage of the cooking method and was advertised as a way to enjoy the outdoors while simultaneously enjoying a meal.

However, coinciding with the Great Depression proved to be a trying time for barbecue enthusiasts. It wasn’t until the end of World War II, as families began to move into suburbs, that barbecuing became more like what it is today. Of course, today you’d be hard-pressed to agree on what “proper barbecuing” is. Visit Texas, Nashville, Kansas City, Virginia or South Carolina and you’ll find vastly different styles of BBQ, all distinct from one another (yet all still delicious).

Traditional sides, like cornbread and baked beans, were included simply because that’s what was in surplus in those days. In other regions, watermelon and bread were the sides du jour.These days, sides nearly steal the show at most American BBQs. However, if you’re looking for the authentic experience, remember to keep the meat cooking “low and slow.” If you remember that, the forefathers are sure to be proud.

Photo: iStock

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