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Barbecue: The Great American Pastime
By Eric Vinje, Cosmic Chile
Baseball may rank up there, but barbecue is another great American pastime. While its popularity is well known, its origins, its definition and even how you spell it - BBQ, bar-be-cue, barbecue - are clouded in thick grill smoke.
For many Americans, "barbecue" is a gathering of friends in the back yard for food prepared over a hot grill. For those who are serious about their barbecue, there is a distinction between barbecue and grilling. Barbecuing is preparing food outdoors using the indirect heat from a wood fire. Grilling is what many backyards chef do when they cook hamburgers, hot dogs, seafood, you name it over a hot grill using direct heat. That grill can use barbecue briquettes, wood chips, gas or any combination of those fuel ingredients. Both can involve some sort of hot sauce or spicy barbeque sauce to heat things up.
Barbecuing, because it involves indirect, slow cooking, usually is reserved for large pieces of meat like pork (whole or roasts), beef brisket, ribs, etc. It can take longer than 12 hours to cook a whole hog or a large beef brisket with ribs taking anywhere from four to five hours to cook. "These low temperatures and slow cooking - low 'n slow - create the unique, smoky meat appearance, taste and texture that is authentic barbecue," notes the web site of the California Barbecue Association.
There are almost as many theories of the origins of the word "barbecue" as there are ways to prepare barbecue. Some trace the word to the French "barbe-a-queue" which is loosely translated as from beard to tail. In other words, cooking a pig from tip to toe. Others say the term derives from the Spanish word "barbacoa," which means a framework of sticks - what was used to hoist a hunk of meat over a fire to cook it. And the term "barbacoa" supposedly is derived from the Arawak word "babracot" for wooden apparatus. Tar Heel magazine was quoted as saying the word "barbecue" comes from a nineteenth century advertisement that cited a combination of whisky bar, beer hall, pool establishment and roast pig seller , which is summed up as bar-beer-cue-pig.
How it came to the United States is also anyone's guess. The California Barbecue Association posts that barbecue first came to California by Franciscan friars who brought it from the Caribbean. In the 17th century, the friars came to California, which was then part of Mexico.
Another theory is that barbecue originated in the late 1800s during Western cattle drives. Slowly cooking tough meat over a fire was a way to tenderize the meat and make it tastier. German butchers reportedly brought barbecue to Texas in the mid-1800s.
What's certain is that barbecuing has been an American pastime for hundreds of years. Some say that large barbecue gatherings were common starting about 50 years before the Civil War in the south. Later on in the nineteenth century, it became a mainstay at church picnics and politic rallies as well as private parties. Today just about everyone grills or barbecues at one time or another - whether it's a little hibachi grill on an urban fire escape or an all out pig roast complete with a barbecue pit dug in your home's backyard.
There are also regional differences when it comes to barbecue. Reportedly, vinegar-based sauces are what fire up back-yard chefs in North and South Carolina. Tennessee barbecue sauces tend to be spicy and sweet as well as tomato-based. Dry rubs can be used almost anywhere. Kansas City, Mo., another barbecue hot spot, uses a tomato-based sauce like Tennesseans, but also adds molasses to the mix. Texas sauces show a Mexican influence and may use chilies and limes in the sauce or as accompaniments to the meal.
Also what type of meat is used also varies by region. Beef is prime in Texas whereas pork is the old stand-by for the Carolinas and the rest of the south. In the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast, most people grill rather than barbecue. Specifically for the Pacific Northwest, grilling of fish, especially salmon, is popular as is the use of cedar planks to add flavor.
Grillin' and Chillin' with the Flintstones
It's certainly clear that cooking over a wood fire was something we all did in prehistoric times and mostly with meat. It was the first type of cooking, popular around 125,000 B.C. and helped propel us to today's meat-centered diet.
Barbecue and grilling also arose independently all over the planet. Grilling is a popular way to prepare meat in China and Korea, for example, as well as in the Caribbean.
According to the History Channel, "barbecue" appeared in print for the first time in 1655 back when the United States was a colony of Great Britain and by the mid-nineteenth century barbecue was a popular way to prepare meat, especially out West.
Barbecue really started cooking in the 1920s because of Henry Ford and his assembly line. Sounds like an odd couple, Henry Ford and barbecue, but economic necessity enticed Ford to create the charcoal briquette, now a mainstay fuel source for grills. Ford invented the briquette because his assembly line produced not just cars, but a lot of wood scraps. Ford figured he could turn his garbage into cash and he did.
Similarly utility companies introduced gas grills in the 1950s and then a worker at Weber Brothers Metal Works fashioned the first Weber kettle grill in 1951, also according to the History Channel.
As time marches on, barbecuers continue to perfect their art. One of the major trends in barbecuing is the "water smoker," says the infoplease.com web site. The water smoker can be fueled by electricity or coal. Burning wood chips and boiling water allows an outdoor cook to slowly cook meat while the circulating water/steam bastes the food and keeps it moist.
And whether you grill or barbecue, one of the best ways to prepare meat or vegetables is to marinade them first in the marinade or sauce of your choice. If you're simply grilling meat over a hot flame, marinades may not be required, but a dipping sauce provided with the meal can add flavor.
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