The History of Barbecue

The History of Barbecue in the South

The Etymology of Barbecue

The roads of the Southern United States are lined with a succession of grinning pigs, advertising the availability of barbecue in countless restaurants. The origins of barbecue in the South, however, are traceable to a period long before the smiling pig became a fixture on Southern roadsides. The etymology of the term is vague, but the most plausible theory states that the word "barbecue" is a derivative of the West Indian term "barbacoa," which denotes a method of slow-cooking meat over hot coals. Bon Appetit magazine blithely informs its readers that the word comes from an extinct tribe in Guyana who enjoyed "cheerfully spitroasting captured enemies." The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to Haiti, and others claim (somewhat implausibly) that "barbecue" actually comes from the French phrase "barbe a queue", meaning "from head to tail." Proponents of this theory point to the whole-hog cooking method espoused by some barbecue chefs. Tar Heel magazine posits that the word "barbecue" comes from a nineteenth century advertisement for a combination whiskey bar, beer hall, pool establishment and purveyor of roast pig, known as the BAR-BEER-CUE-PIG (Bass 313). The most convincing explanation is that the method of roasting meat over powdery coals was picked up from indigenous peoples in the colonial period, and that "barbacoa" became "barbecue" in the lexicon of early settlers.

Barbecue Before the Civil War

The history of barbecue itself, aside from its murky etymological origins, is more clear. For several reasons, the pig became an omnipresent food staple in the South. Pigs were a low-maintenance and convenient food source for Southerners. In the pre-Civil War period, Southerners ate, on average, five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef(Gray 27). Pigs could be put out to root in the forest and caught when food supply became low. These semi-wild pigs were tougher and stringier than modern hogs, but were a convenient and popular food source. Every part of the pig was utilized-- the meat was either eaten immediately or cured for later consumption, and the ears, organs and other parts were transformed into edible delicacies. Pig slaughtering became a time for celebration, and the neighborhood would be invited to share in the largesse. The traditional Southern barbecue grew out of these gatherings.

William Byrd, in his eighteenth century book writings The Secret History of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina has some pretty snippy things to say about some Southerners' predilection for pork. He writes that hog meat was:

the staple commodity of North Carolina . . . and with pitch and tar makes up the whole of their traffic . . . these people live so much upon swine's flesh that it don't only incline them to the yaws, and consequently to the . . . [loss] of their noses, but makes them likewise extremely hoggish in their temper, and many of them seem to grunt rather than speak in their ordinary conversation(Taylor 21-2)


"Yaws," of course, is an infectious tropical disease closely related to syphilis. Perhaps because of natives like Byrd, Virginia is frequently considered beyond the parameters of the "barbecue belt."

At the end of the colonial period, the practice of holding neighborhood barbecues was well-established, but it was in the fifty years before the Civil War that the traditions associated with large barbecues became entrenched. Plantation owners regularly held large and festive barbecues, including "pig pickin's" for slaves (Hilliard 59). In this pre-Civil War period, a groundswell of regional patriotism made pork production more and more important. Relatively little of the pork produced was exported out of the South, and hog production became a way for Southerners to create a self-sufficient food supply-- Southern pork for Southern patriots (Hilliard 99). Hogs became fatter and better cared-for, and farmers began to feed them corn to plump them up before slaughter. The stringy and tough wild pigs of the colonial period became well-fed hogs. Barbecue was still only one facet of pork production, but more hogs meant more barbecues.

In the nineteenth century, barbecue was a feature at church picnics and political rallies as well as at private parties (Egerton 150). A barbecue was a popular and relatively inexpensive way to lobby for votes, and the organizers of political rallies would provide barbecue, lemonade, and usually a bit of whiskey (Bass 307). These gatherings were also an easy way for different classes to mix. Barbecue was not a class- specific food, and large groups of people from every stratum could mix to eat, drink and listen to stump speeches. Journalist Jonathan Daniels, writing in the mid-twentieth century, maintained that "Barbecue is the dish which binds together the taste of both the people of the big house and the poorest occupants of the back end of the broken-down barn" (Bass 314). Political and church barbecues were among the first examples of this phenomenon. Church barbecues, where roasted pig supplemented the covered dishes prepared by the ladies of the congregation, were a manifestation of the traditional church picnic in many Southern communities. Church and political barbecues are still a vital tradition in many parts of the South (Bass 301). Usually, these restaurants grew out of a simple barbecue pit where the owner sold barbecue to take away. Many of the pit men only opened on weekends, working (usually on a farm) during the week and tending the pit on weekends. The typical barbecue shack consisted of a bare concrete floor surrounded by a corrugated tin roof and walls (Johnson 9). Soon, stools and tables were added, and the ubiquitous pig adorned the outside of the building. Few pit men owned more than one restaurant-- the preparation of the pig required almost constant attention, and few expert pit men were willing to share the secret of their sauce preparations. The advent of the automobile gave the barbecue shack a ready-made clientele-- travellers would stop at the roadside stands for a cheap and filling meal (Johnson 6). As the twentieth century progressed, barbecue pits grew and prospered, evolving into three distinct types. According to barbecue scholar Jonathan Bass, the three kinds of barbecue restaurants are black-owned, upscale urban white, and white "joints" (more akin to honky-tonk bars). These racial denotations, however, do not mean that barbecue restaurants catered to a specific racial clientele. Good barbecue drew (and draws) barbecue fans of every color and class.

Perhaps because much of its trade consisted of take-out orders, the barbecue restaurant was an interracial meeting place long before the forced integration of the 1950's and 1960's (Egerton 152). When these restaurants first appeared, many were owned by black Southerners, and "whites, in a strange reversal of Jim Crow traditions, made stealthy excursions for take-out orders" (Wilson 676). In the 1950's and 1960's, much of this comity was lost. Many barbecue joints became segregated by race. Barbecue has even made it into the annals of legal history, with the desegregation battles at Ollie's Barbecue in Alabama and Maurice's Piggy Park in Columbia providing often-cited case law as well as a stain on the fascinating history of barbecue. In the case Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, the court ruled that Maurice Bessinger's chain of five barbecue restaurants unlawfully discriminated against African-American patrons.

The varied history of barbecue reflects the varied history of the South. Sometimes shameful, but usually interesting, the history of barbecue can be seen an emblem of Southern history. For the past seventy-five years, the barbecue joint has flourished. Although local specialties and the time-intensive nature of barbecue preparation have insured that real barbecue (as opposed to defrosted and microwaved meat) will never be a staple at chain restaurants, barbecue has endured. Aside from its succulent taste, delicious sauces and the inimitable, smoky atmosphere of an authentic barbecue joint, barbecue has become a Southern icon, a symbol that is cherished by Southerners. Without the racist subtext of the Stars and Bars, the anachronistic sexism of the Southern belle, or the bland ennui of a plate of grits, barbecue has become a cultural icon for Southerners, of every race, class and sex.

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