Americans didn’t invent barbecue — it’s a timeless cooking technique that appears in many guises around the globe — but it has been intertwined with American history since the beginning of the republic.
When President George Washington oversaw the laying of the U.S. Capitol cornerstone in 1793, the assembled dignitaries celebrated the momentous occasion with barbecued ox. Our proprietary feelings about smoked and grilled meats go along with a range of misconceptions about the food and its customs.
Myth No. 1: The word ‘barbecue’ is French
One of the most common stories people tell about barbecue is that the word comes from the French phrase “barbe à queue,” meaning “beard to tail.” Barbecue historian John Shelton Reed traces this misunderstanding to an 1829 article in the National Intelligencer that called Andrew Jackson’s supporters “barbecues” because they went whole hog (or beard to tail) for him. Other newspapers, taking the joke literally, spread the myth of barbecue’s supposed French connection. That claim still pops up today, repeated by cookbook authors and spice blend purveyors. “Barbecue” has other mistaken etymologies, too: that it came from a Texas ranch’s branding iron (a bar over the letters B and Q), for example, or that it originated with an indigenous Caribbean phrase for “sacred fire pit.” The latter gets closer to the truth.
The word “barbecue,” scholars believe, originated when Spanish explorers encountered the Taino people of the Caribbean cooking fish and lizards over a framework of sticks. The Europeans approximated the native word for this unfamiliar grilling apparatus as “barbacoa.” Over the decades, it became Anglicized as “barbecue.”
Myth No. 2: There are four regional barbecue styles in America
Most guides to American barbecue settle on four regional styles: Texas, North Carolina, Memphis and Kansas City. Countless publications promote this oversimplified taxonomy, from Michael Karl Witzel’s “Barbecue Road Trip” to Dotty Griffith’s “Celebrating Barbecue: The Ultimate Guide to America’s 4 Regional Styles of ’Cue.” In a 2016 national TV advertising campaign, Heinz marketed four sauces keyed to the four-headed Rushmore of barbecue: Texas Bold & Spicy, Carolina Tangy, Memphis Sweet & Spicy, and Kansas City Sweet & Smoky.
Those four are important barbecue centers with distinctive traditions, but other places have their own regional styles. Chicago (rib tips), St. Louis (pig snoots), Kentucky (smoked mutton), the Santa Maria Valley of California (grilled tri-tip beef) and other places offer significant variations. The smoked fish of the Pacific Northwest should be considered part of the barbecue family tree as well, along with the kalua pig of Hawaii. The pit beef of Baltimore also deserves a small branch.
Most important, the four-styles shorthand overlooks the barbecue hotbed of the Deep South, which is to pork what Texas is to beef. It underplays the significance of exemplary barbecue states like Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, with their chopped pork and side dishes of Brunswick stew and barbecue hash. The mustard barbecue sauce found in South Carolina and parts of Georgia qualifies as a noteworthy style within a regional style.
Myth No. 3: The Weber kettle ignited backyard cooking
When the Weber-Stephen metal works of Chicago introduced the kettle cooker in 1952, fashioning it from buoys used on the Great Lakes, it became one of the country’s most popular grills. Accounts from the HuffPost to the Food Network credit this invention with revolutionizing backyard cooking.
But Weber was far from the only grill, and it wasn’t the first. Mobile grills and smokers started appearing just before World War II, but didn’t take off until the GIs came home and the suburbs boomed. Among the earliest grillmakers were Hasty-Bake of Tulsa, Oklahoma and Char-Broil of Columbus, Georgia, both of which introduced portable models during the 1940s.
In fact, the dawn of backyard cooking in America predated even these manufacturers by several decades. What’s more, it took place not in the barbecue homeland of the South, but in California. Sunset, a magazine established by the Southern Pacific Railroad to promote tourism and migration to the state, began to publish articles about backyard barbecues during the 1910s and ’20s. Inspired by Mexican ranchero cooking, Sunset showed its readers how to build brick barbecue pits in their yards and how to stage cookouts around them. In 1938, the magazine published “Sunset’s Barbecue Book” — the first real cookbook in this style — with detailed instructions for constructing and maintaining masonry pits.
Myth No. 4: Outdoor cooking is man’s work
That’s a direct quote from no less an authority than James Beard, who wrote it in his 1941 book, “Cook It Outdoors.” In the following decades, magazine articles and cookbooks like the “Better Homes & Gardens Barbecue Book,” from 1956, played up the masculinity of barbecue, often comically, making it sound as if only men could build a charcoal fire and summon the mysterious forces of meat and smoke. In 1961, Helen Evans Brown and her husband, Philip, wrote in “The Cookout Book”: “Nothing makes a man look — and we should think, feel — more henpecked than to have his wife officiate at the cookout.”
But women have always played a role in barbecue, and its annals are full of female accomplishment. In 1978, the first winner of the Memphis in May barbecue contest, one of the earliest and largest of the genre, was Bessie Lou Cathey. The pitmaster at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, Texas, the top-ranked barbecue place in Texas Monthly’s listings, is an octogenarian woman, Tootsie Tomanetz. Carolyn Wells is the co-founder and executive director of the world’s largest barbecue organization, the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
Myth No. 5: If you cook it on gas, it isn’t barbecue
Gas vs. wood is one of the most contentious divides in barbecue. For many traditionalists, the billboard outside the Skylight Inn, a famous whole-hog emporium in Ayden, North Carolina, lays down the undisputed gospel: “If it’s not cooked with wood, It’s not BBQ.” Others agree: “If there’s no sign of cooking wood in plain sight or no distinct smell of smoke in the air, then there’s no barbecue in the house,” says Thrillist.
But prizing the places that do it the old-fashioned way doesn’t mean dismissing the excellent results many businesses get with new technology. The truth is that most barbecue in America these days is not cooked entirely over wood. About 180 million Americans have some kind of grill, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, and of them, roughly 62 percent have gas grills. Restaurants have moved toward gas hybrid smokers such as the ones made by Southern Pride and Ole Hickory because they’re easier to use, produce higher volumes of food and are less labor-intensive. Some of the nation’s better barbecue places — like Joe’s Kansas City in Kansas City, Kansas, and Community Q in Decatur, Georgia — use gas hybrid cookers and get plenty of smoke flavor. Old-line places like Payne’s in Memphis, and newer craft barbecue luminaries like Franklin in Austin, swear by wood.
Which is better? Probably the one you’re closer to at lunchtime.