Ah. The beloved BBQ. A human tradition that knows no borders. The three pillars of civilization - fire, speech and eating together - are at the core of BBQing. And as another glorious backyard BBQing season draws to a close (although many hardy Canadians BBQ all winter long), it’s worth a look at the history of this incredibly tasty tradition.
BBQ exists in many forms all around the world. In Asia, Japanese and Korean BBQing is relatively new. In fact the Japanese didn’t even start eating red meat until the 1940s. However, they’ve more than made up for lost time with their current BBQ fare. The Japanese use several grilling methods from hibachi and teppanyaki to binchotan, an oak charcoal that emits infra-red heat that cooks the meat inside while the outside is seared by flames. In Korea, BBQ is practically a way of life, promoting the social aspect of eating in groups. Korean ‘gogi-gui’ features marinades and an exciting variety of side dishes.
Arguably, the king of BBQ nations is China, where the grilling traditions are thousands of years old. Virtually every major city in the world boasts a Cantonese BBQ shop. At home, during the summer, their yangrou chuan (Xinjing-style lamb skewers with cumin and chilli) draw hundreds of millions of people out onto table-lined streets every year.
Throughout the Middle East, kebabs rule the BBQ grills - whether skewered or not. Mutton, beef, chicken, goat or seafood will all be accompanied by ‘mezze’, a delicious array of appetizers and side dishes.
But for pure BBQ traditionalists, the South African ‘braii’ commands attention. Rule #1, it HAS TO BE ON AN OPEN FIRE. The braii is a monument to meat. Huge amounts of all kinds of meat - beef, lamb, ostrich, springbok, etc - flavoured with spices and Malay fruit chutneys and braised with sout, an unbelievably delicious, spiced salt.
For us North Americans, the fabled traditions of BBQing were established by the Black American pit masters. Slaves. “Night before the barbecues, I used to stay up all night cooking and basting the meats with barbecue sauce. It was made of vinegar, black and red pepper, salt, butter, a little sage, coriander, basil, onion, and garlic. Some folks drop a little sugar in it. On a long-pronged stick, I wrapped a soft rag or cotton for a swab, and all night long, I swabbed the meat until it dripped into the fire. The drippings changed the smoke into seasoned fumes that smoked the meat. We turned the meat over and swabbed it that way all night long until it oozed seasoning and was baked all through.” Thus recalled a former enslaved African American whose narrative was recorded by the Work Projects Administration in the 1930s.
But before BBQing migrated to the American south, it had all started with the Taino people of the Caribbean. They used a framework made from very green wood so that the structure wouldn’t burn, built over a fire pit. The latticed wooden grill on top would hold the meat and seafood to be BBQed. Their word for this structure was ‘barbacoa’. When Christopher Columbus arrived at the Bahamian Island of Guanahani (San Salvador) in 1492, he discovered the Taino and this process where the flames and smoke enveloped the meat and gave it a distinct, delicious flavour. The word barbacoa gradually became barbecue, and the meaning of the word now refers to not only the implement being used, but also the whole process of BBQing as well as the resultant food.
But it was the black pit masters who perfected the Taino tradition and established the uniquely North American world of BBQ that we love so dearly today. Throughout plantations in the south, barbecues for guests and special events at the big house were the forum for the black slaves and freemen who developed the iconic barbecue. And as the BBQ masters spread across the south and midwest, so did their legendary mop sauces, marinades, rubs and BBQ sauces.