The History of BBQ (and Grilling)

Few things are as universal as the barbecue. For thousands of years, humans have gathered around fire to enjoy cooked foods. No one is quite sure where it started. Some believe that the modern concept of barbecue and grilling started when Europeans arrived in North America and learned how Native Americans prepared fish and game on grids of green wood over coals. The green wood kept the grid from burning. Others believe the concept started with the Spanish in the Caribbean, where the word, “Barbacoa” was coined to explain how the local population would slow cook meats over fire. Rumor goes, the word itself was derived from a tribe in Guyana who enjoyed spit-roasting captured enemies. Yikes! Others believe the term, “Barbecue” actually comes from the French phrase, “barbe a queue” which means, “from head to tail”.

Hernando De Soto, Foodie

As America was being explored, in 1540 the Chicksaw tribe in an area close to Tupelo, Mississippi cooked a feast of pork over the barbacoa for their guest, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto who wrote of this experience. Eventually the method spread across the South. By the 19th Century, it was prevalent with slow cooked pork being the most prevalent meat due to its availability. Pigs required less complicated methods of raising and could even be left to fend for themselves in the wild. The meat was much leaner and tougher than their modern counterparts. As a result, the meat benefited greatly from the slow smoking process which broke down the natural collagen and meat into a soft, succulent meat. Pork was so popular in the south, that the average person ate five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef.

Barbecue rapidly grew in popularity in the 19th century with large gatherings such as church gatherings and political rallies because of the ease of cooking in large quantities. Some say that the original barbecue gatherings of the founding fathers would be drunken parties that went on for days since travel was so difficult. Corn was also plentiful in the South so cornbread became a standard side dish with cole slaw. July 4th Independence Day was and continues to be an anchor holiday for bringing friends together to enjoy BBQ.

It’s important to note that purists say barbecue (or BBQ) and grilling are not the same thing. Barbecue is defined by cooking, “Low and Slow”, at a low temperature and for a long time. Grilling is about high heat, often characterized by sear or char. Both benefit from the Maillard reaction – a chemical reaction that produces a browning of the meat.

Smokey Mo 4 Meat Sampler
Typical BBQ Plate

So what are the different types of Barbecue? There are four distinctive types defined by their birthplace:

  • Memphis style – Pork shoulder or ribs with a dry rub of paprika and garlic base, often mixed with a tomato-based sweet sauce
  • Carolina style – Hog with a vinegar base sauce. Subgroups include Lexington-style which focuses on the ribs or pork shoulder while Eastern style is whole-hog with a vinegar base. Central South Carolina often features a mustard base with brown sugar and vinegar in their sauce.
  • Kansas City style – Dry-rubbed ribs are often featured with a very slow and low cook over hickory wood. The sauce pours on thick with molasses and tomato sauce that’s sweet and sticky.
  • Texas style – A state so big, it encompasses just about every style. The signature here is beef, particularly sliced brisket with heavy salt and pepper done over mesquite wood. Central Texas loves their sausage and ribs smoked over pecan or oak wood. East Texans loves their chopped meats with hot sauce.
Santa Maria Tri-Tip Roast

Of course there are other regions as well. Alabama style is all about the white sauce – a vinegar and mayonnaise based concoction served up on pulled pork sandwiches stacked with cole slaw. California “Santa Maria” style is growing in popularity, particularly Central California in Santa Maria where wood-fire grilling over a Santa Maria-style grill with grates that can be raised and lowered. This dates back to the mid-1800’s on cattle ranches where red oak wood would be burned in giant pits to feed the cowboys. Beef Tri-tip rules the roost – a cheap and tougher cut of meat that was perfected by migrant workers. Butchers, unsure of what to do with these two points of beef per cow would sell them cheap. By the 1950’s the style came into its own. By the 1980’s President Ronald Reagan would throw Santa Maria style BBQs at the White House. Today, tri-tip has become so common you can find it at most supermarkets and Costco across the nation.

Be sure to check out our Award-winning Santa Maria Tri-Tip Recipe

After World War II, grilling took off as the middle class grew, and the American dream of home ownership meant the middle class moved to the suburbs. About that time, a metalworker out of Chicago named George Stephen started tinkering. By day he made harbor buoys at his company, Weber Bros. Metal Spinning Co. which he inherited a controlling interest in. Frustrated with flat-bottomed brazier style grills, he cut a buoy in half, added a grate and vents to control temp and… the Weber Kettle grill was born, manufactured by the Weber-Stephen company.

Replica of the original 1951 Weber Grill, Courtesy Jauerback

Another fun fact: Charcoal briquettes were first popularized by Henry Ford, who was looking for a way to reuse all the sawdust created during automobile manufacturing. Ford Charcoal went on to become the Kingsford Company!

Whether you call it barbecue, BBQ or grilling, one thing is constant, friendship. Nothing says friendship like feeding friends and family some good barbecue.

Interested to learn more? Check out Barbecue: The History of an American Institution by Robert F. Moss

Join us in The Hawk's Nest!

Join our monthly newsletter for Recipes, Reviews, and more straight to your inbox.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.