A Quick and Handy Guide on the History of Barbecue

Humans have craved barbecued meat and vegetables for almost as long as we have existed. There’s nothing like biting into a perfectly cooked piece of chicken or tearing into a medium-rare steak. Some people have more exotic tastes and grill up protein like alligator and ostrich. You can even grill a pizza. Have you ever wondered where the art of barbequing came from and how we’ve gotten this far? Then satisfy your appetite with this quick history of barbecue!

A Quick and Handy Guide on the History of Barbecue

Photo by Paul Hermann on Unsplash

Primitive Beginnings

No one really knows when humans actually started to cook food with heat, but what we do know is that our ancestors needed as many calories as possible to survive. When meat and vegetables are cooked, not only are they more easily chewed and digested, they allow our bodies to extract more calories from it. This meant they had more energy for hunting, socializing, and forming communities.

Where Does the Word “Barbecue” Come From?

There are actually a couple stories about the origin of the word ‘barbecue.’ Some say the word comes from the French phrase barbe a queue, which means “beard to tail.” However, it’s actually an old political slur describing how American politicians tend to roast their opponents by “going the whole hog.” This may be the reason why you see ‘barbecue’ and ‘barbeque’ used interchangeably.

The word barbecue is really said to have come from when the Spanish first discovered the Americas. They found the native peoples using wooden frames as a way to support cooking meat with fire. It would be either cooked directly over heat, aka grilling, or use smoke and indirect heat to slow roast and cure their food. The Spanish transcribed the native word for the wooden frame as “barbacoa.”

It has been spelt various ways throughout history. The earliest is said to be found in Edmund Hickeringill’s 1661 Jamaica Viewed. He wrote, animals “are slain, And their flesh forthwith Barbacu’d.” The word as we know it, barbecue, was first thoroughly written about in 1707 by Edward Ward’s The Barbecue Feast; or the Three Pigs of Peckham, Broiled under an Apple Tree, where he noted the sauce made was a “most admirable Composition of Green Virginia Pepper and Madeira wine.”

How Barbecue Spread Throughout the World.

Though detailed by many writers, barbecuing remained a method of cooking for natives and slaves. This is because colonists and white Europeans and colonists had strong prejudice against people of colour, and thought cooking food by barbecuing was beneath them. However, as time passed, and the word was used more frequently, the prejudice against barbecue was lost in translation.

By the time America had gained their independence from the United Kingdom, many colonists had experienced barbecued meat either from travelling or through being introduced to it by other colonists. Eventually, many colonial Americans began to associate the term ‘barbecue’ with social gatherings where animals were roasted whole.

When European immigrants began to settle America, they found that barbecuing their meats by grilling or smoking them was the easiest way to eat. Not only did frontier life become a little more tolerable, but as immigrants from places like Germany and Russia began to settle places throughout Western America, they started their own traditions. These traditions were brought back to their home countries, and barbecue was adopted throughout the world.

Wait, What About Asian Barbecue?

A lot of scholars believe the “low and slow” smoking method to roast meat began in China. After all, food had been placed in ceramic pots, and cooked on hot coals for thousands of years. However, this isn’t quite barbecue. In India, they call it tandoors, and in Japan they use kamados. These methods cook food more like an oven, and can’t supply the same taste as the barbecuing methods we know and love.

Gogigui is a new form of barbecue brought to us by Korea. It’s inspired by two of Korea’s most popular dishes: bulgogi and galbi. These beef dishes are served with a sweet and savoury soy sauce that is also used as a marinade.

The Fast History on Charcoal Briquettes

There are a few methods used to barbecue foods, but using hot charcoal is one of the most popular ways to grill. The first charcoal briquette was invented in 1897 by Ellsworth B.A. Zwoyer. However, Henry Ford quickly improved upon Zwoyer’s briquette by adding wood scraps and sawdust that were byproducts from his assembly lines. Ford even created “Picnic Kits” that contained a portable grill and charcoal briquettes. They were included in every Model T as an official accessory. Eventually, Ford would create the Kingsford company, which is one of the most popular charcoal brands available.

A Quick Timeline on The History of Barbecue Grills

Enter the Modern Day Barbecue Grill.

Cooking outside was still a novelty up until about the late 1940’s, when soldiers returned home from WWII, and began to settle into the suburbs. People were using thin sheets of metal with short legs, placed over hot charcoal. However, this method of cooking food was inconsistent, and often left meat burned and ashes everywhere.

You can thank welder George Stephen for inventing the prototype of our modern day grill. While working at Weber Brothers Metal Works, he cut a metal buoy in half, added a wire grate, and made a grill with a dome lid. The dome-shaped lid helped heat spread evenly, which meant better tasting food. He also added vents to help oxygen get to flame and charcoal. You now know this design as the highly recognisable Weber grill. As a matter of fact, most modern day grills are inspired by this design.

Charcoal Turned Into Gas in the 1960’s.

In the 1960’s there was a push for people to use more natural gas. Two employees from the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company in the United States converted a charcoal grill into a grill that ran on propane gas. While this did make grilling more expensive, gas grills are often easier to use and move around. However, many people still choose to use charcoal grills, because the smoke from charcoal or wood can enhance the flavour of food

It Was Slow Burn Until the 1980’s.

Ceramic burners were added to barbecue in the 1980’s by inventor Bill Best. This method uses propane gas to heat a ceramic tile, and cook food directly. They are very common in restaurants, because they’re great at cooking meat directly and sealing in flavour.

The 1990’s Made Barbecue Healthy.

It’s no secret that the 1990’s was obsessed with reducing fat in almost everything, and this included barbecued meat. Electric grills like the George Foreman became extremely popular, because they grill food on a slant, which allows the fat to drip away. Many disagree that this is true grilling, because traditional grilling uses fat to help flavor meat.

Grills Got Big in the 2000’s.

By the 2000’s, people were experimenting with grills big time. In 2000, Terry Folsom created an 18-wheeled lorry made just for grilling. It’s over 23 metres long and weighs over 40 tonnes. It has 24 smoking compartments. It takes a police escort when driven, and has a fire box attached to the back.

A Quick and Handy Guide on the History of Barbecue

Photo by Vincent Keiman on Unsplash

It’s Not a Barbecue Without Sauce

There’s no doubt that it’s not real barbecue until there’s sauce! We have loved sauce on our food for almost as long as we’ve been cooking. Read about how our long love affair with sauces led to an evolution of how we eat modern day meat and veg.

Fish Sauce and Romans

You can find a Roman cookbook written in the 4th or 5th century that has about 100 sauce recipes. Fish sauce was popular during that time, because it adds a savoury component to dishes. We still use the flavour of fish in a lot of barbecue sauce. If you look at your favourite sauce’s ingredient list, you might find Worcestershire sauce, which has anchovies as its main ingredient.

Vinegar in the Middle Ages

Europeans began using grape juice and wine for sauces in the Middle Ages. Then they started using vinegar. Vinegar is wine that has been through further fermentation, and it adds acidity to sauce. It’s also great at tenderising meat. You can find vinegar is most modern day barbecue sauces.

Barbecue Sauce Finally Makes an Appearance

An article written in 1871 in the U.S. state of Tennessee is believed to be the first mention of an actual barbecue sauce. This article thanks Dr. J.H. Larwill for an excellent “lot” of barbecue sauce. By the 1880’s, there were plenty of advertisements for barbecue sauce. However, most of these sauces were mostly spices, butter and vinegar.

Germans Add Their Own Spin

If you like yellow barbecue sauce, you can thank the Germans. Their love of pork and mustard ended up becoming the perfect barbecue sauce. This sauce is very popular in the Southern United States, and in most parts of Germany.

Kansas City Rises to the Top

The most modern type of barbecue sauce hails from Kansas City, which is based with ketchup. Most early ketchups used fish sauce to deliver taste. It’s flavour has been refined over time, and Kansas City style barbecue sauce has been adopted throughout the world.

From Protein to Pizza.

Not only have we changed how we barbecue, we’ve changed what we barbecue. When our ancestors first started cooking food barbacoa style, it was mostly just protein. It stayed mostly whole hogs and beef for a long time, but now we have learned how to skillfully grill foods like vegetables, fruits, tofu, and even pizza. Take a look at this quick history of the foods we grill.

Whole Hogs

Whole Hog barbecue is one of the oldest forms of barbecue, and it can be traced all the way back to Native Americans. However, it flourished in the Southern United States, because slaves were able to feed large amounts of people. By the 1920’s, whole hog restaurants were opening. The skills that it takes to produce the perfect whole hog barbecue are usually passed through many generations of African-American pitmasters.

Vegetables

It’s no secret that humans have thrived on vegetables just as much as they have meat. Studies have shown that we may have started our passion for roasted vegetables at least 170,000 years ago. Our ancestors started out with vegetables like yams and potatoes, and today we enjoy almost every kind of vegetable tossed on the barbecue.

Brisket

If you enjoy barbecue brisket, you should be thanking the Germans. What was once considered one of the worst cuts of meat there is, brisket was embraced by German immigrants. It used to be that brisket was cooked low and slow in a Dutch Oven. However, in 1950, two German butchers in Texas decided to use a smoker instead. Since then, smoked and barbecued brisket is enjoyed all over the world.

Kebabs

Kebabs actually go by many names. In Russian they’re called “shashlik,” in Armenia you call them “horovats, and in Turkey they say “shish-kebab.” Whatever you call them, it’s grilled, barbecued, or roasted food on a stick. They’re believed to have originated in Turkey when soldiers needed to eat quickly in open fields. Today, you don’t need to be a soldier to enjoy this convenient form of barbecue, because restaurants and food trucks sell almost any kind of kebab you’d like.

Barbecue In the U.K.

The U.K. was a little slower to accept barbecue than a lot of other countries. In fact, it has been labelled extremely “un-British” for a long time. However, that doesn’t mean the Brits aren’t trying to make more of an effort to roll out the grill, when the weather calls for it. The U.K is known for its excellent butchers and exquisite cuts of meat. Influences from the East and West, and plant-based diets have certainly made a huge impact on the flavour of British barbecue. Today you can find grilled garlic infused courgettes, harissa-marinated steaks, and gorgeously grilled fish fillets. So, what are you waiting for? Get outside and go grill!