Man has grilled meat over open flames since he first discovered how to make fire. As a result, outdoor cooking has been a part of every culture throughout recorded history. However, the idea of cooking entire animals low and slow over coals and smoke seems to have come, at least to Europeans and their descendants relatively recently. In today’s post, we are going to look at where the ideas came from and how it caught on, particularly in the southern United States.
What is Barbecue?
Barbecue is a term used with significant regional and national variations to describe various cooking methods that use live fire and smoke to cook the food. The cooking methods associated with barbecuing vary significantly but most involve outdoor cooking. The various regional variations of barbecue can be broadly categorized into those methods which use direct and those which use indirect heating. Indirect barbecues are associated with the southern part of the United States, in which meat is heated by roasting or smoking over wood or charcoal. These methods of barbecue involve cooking using smoke at low temperatures and long cooking times, for several hours.
However, the word barbecue has different meanings for different people. In American English usage in the Southern U.S, grilling refers to a fast process over high heat while barbecuing refers to a slow process using indirect heat or hot smoke, like some forms of roasting. In a typical U.S. home grill, food is cooked on a grate directly over hot charcoal, while in a U.S. barbecue the coals are dispersed to the sides or at a significant distance from the grate. In British usage, barbequing refers to a fast-cooking process done directly over high heat, while grilling refers to cooking under a source of direct, moderate-to-high heat—known in the United States as broiling. For today’s article, we are going to focus on the definition from southern American English.
Origins of Barbecue
Buccan or Boucan is the native South American and Caribbean name for a wooden framework or hurdle on which meat was slow-roasted or smoked over a fire. Depending on how high the platform was raised above the fire, the meat on top would either be slow roasted or cured. Other etymologists believe this to be derived from “barabicu” found in the language of the Arawak people of the Caribbean and the Timucua people of Florida. Spaniards called the same process "barbacoa", which later became "barbecue" in English.
The term "buccaneer" for pirates or privateers, is said to be derived from buccan. In the Caribbean, seafarers used these wooden frames for smoking meat, preferably pork. From this derived the French word boucane and hence the name boucanier for French hunters who used such frames to smoke meat from feral cattle and pigs on Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). English colonists anglicized the word boucanier to buccaneer.
After Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, the Spaniards apparently found Taíno roasting meat over a grill consisting of a wooden framework resting on sticks above a fire. The flames and smoke rose and enveloped the meat, giving it an appealing flavor. As the Spanish explorers who followed Columbus turned their expeditions north, they found the cooking technique already here. In 1540, close to present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, the Chicksaw tribe, in the presence of explorer Hernando de Soto, cooked a feast of pork over the barbacoa.
Barbecue in the Colonial America and the Early United States
In 1619, the first enslaved Africans were imported into Jamestown. As the influx of enslaved labor increased through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, African cultural traditions permeated colonial life. In Tidewater Virginia, West African slaves brought with them a culinary tradition of cooking in pits. In West Africa, women cooked most meats over an open pit, and prepared them with a sauce made from lime or lemon juice and hot peppers, a sauce that resembles what would come to be considered barbecue sauce in the nineteenth century.
The African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-97), although he did not use the word ‘barbecue’, reported that, during his travels in Cape Gracias a Dios (in modern Honduras), he saw some of the Miskito people kill an alligator and cook its meat over a hole in the earth, filled with wood which had been burnt to coal:
“The alligators were killed and some of them "roasted, Their manner. of roasting is by digging a hole in the earth, and filling it with wood, which they burn to coal, and then they lay sicks across, on which they set the meat.”
This method had a variety of advantages, especially for those, like the Taínos and Miskito, who lived by hunting or subsistence farming. Primarily, it meant that nothing was wasted. Since it made even the toughest meat tender, virtually every part of an animal could be eaten. It also needed little fuel; and best of all, it made it a tasty meal.
Yet barbecuing nevertheless stayed the preserve of natives and, on occasion, of slaves. There is little, if any, evidence, before the early 18th century, of colonists barbecuing meat except on journeys into the interior.
Within a few decades, however, this was to change. As the prosperity and self-confidence of Britain’s North American colonies grew in the second half of the 18th century, barbecues appear to have become more common: not just among slaves, brought over from the Caribbean, but also among the colonial elites. In Massachusetts and Virginia there are accounts of barbecues held by wealthy landowners.
The earliest print reference in English in North America appears in Beauchamp Plantagenet’s pamphlet, A Description of New Albion (1648). Describing various native peoples in North America, the author noted that the ‘Indians of the Chesapeake Bay “instead of salt doe barbecado or dry and smoak fish.” The word “barbecue” appears in 1672 in the writings of John Lederer following his travels in the North American southeast in 1669–1670 where he advises those trying to travel beyond the “Apalatean” Mountains:
“For other provisions, you may securely trust your gun, the woods being full of fallow, and the savanae of red deer, besides great variety of excellent fowl, as wilde turkeys, pigeons, partridges, pheasants, etc. But you must not forget to dry or barbecue some of these before you come to the mountains: for upon them you will meet no game, except a few bears.”
Given that most American colonists shared the prejudices of their English counterparts, this sudden shift is unlikely to be the result of a more positive attitude towards native culture. More probably, it was a misunderstanding. Overall, the colonists seem to have been unclear about what ‘barbecue’ meant and its origins. Having only heard the word second-, or even third hand, they did not appear to have recognized it as a ‘native’ term, or even as a word used to describe a method of cooking.
Modern conceptions of southern barbecue as a food, cooking process, and social event have their roots in the Tidewater plantation society of colonial Virginia. While the southern barbecue tradition is rooted in Indigenous practice, it is also the product of the melding of three distinct cultures and peoples: Native American, English, and West African. They saw it as something like a picnic: that is, as a social gathering, usually held outdoors, at which animals were roasted whole. Here, the indigenous practice of roasting or smoking meat on wooden structure over a fire would evolve into what would become southern barbecue, the slow roasting of meat over hardwood coals in a pit.
On August 31st, 1733, Benjamin Lynde, Jr., a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge from Salem, wrote in his diary, “Fair and hot; Browne, barbacue; Hack overset.” Lexicographers have interpreted this entry to mean that Lynde attended a barbecue at the Brownes or with Mr. Browne on a hot day. “Hack overset,” may mean that his carriage or horse tipped over. Thus, by 1730s “barbecue” was being used to describe an outdoor social event where large animals were roasted and other provisions—liquor—were liberally supplied in addition to its earlier meanings of a structure and cooking process.
After winning independence from Britain, the former colonists were anxious not only to safeguard their freedom against foreign threats, but also to expand their territory westwards. These twin goals worsened their long-running conflict with the native American tribes, many of whom had allied with the British. Yet perversely, it was in persecution and conflict with the natives that American settlers gained a fuller understanding, not only of native society, but also of barbecuing, which, as the Irish trader James Adair noted, was a specialty of the Chickasaw. They soon realized that smoking was a method particularly well suited to the hardships of frontier life.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the dinner table became the focus of the hospitality of elite Virginia society, and it was common for wealthy planters to invite a substantial number of guests over for dinner and dancing. As the festivities grew, they moved outside allowing the planter to extend his hospitality to his guests without encroaching on the formalities of the household or imposing the rules of the dining room onto the gathering. In a July 1758 letter from John Kilpatrick to George Washington, who was at that time serving on the frontier as a Colonel in the French and Indian War, Kilpatrick wrote:
“To tell you our Domestick occurrences woud look silly—& ill sute your time to peruse—We have dull Barbecues—and yet Duller Dances—An Election causes a Hubub for a Week or so—& then we are dead a While.”
This mention in a “letter from home” was apparently not an accident. George Washington was an avid Virginia-style barbecue enthusiast. His parents celebrated their marriage with several Virginia barbecues. He wrote in his diary for May 27, 1769, “Went into Alexandria to a Barbecue and stayed all Night,” and between 1769 and 1774, he recorded attending six such events including on September 18, 1773, when he wrote he attended “a Barbicue [sic] of my own giving at Accotinck.”. According to his entries, these occurrences seem to have been all day social events that took place in the summer and early fall.
However, like Washington’s mention of barbecues, these diary entries often only note that one attended a barbecue and do not describe the event, the food that was served, or how that food was prepared. The brevity of many of these entries can be attributed to the fact that the journals were personal and many of the writers were most likely familiar with barbecues because they were born in the Tidewater colony. Therefore, it was unnecessary to give any detail.
Eighteenth century sources that give the most detailed descriptions of Tidewater plantation barbecues include the journals of individuals visiting Virginia, rather than Virginian colonists, and letters by Virginians to foreign correspondents. On July 26, 1774, Nicholas Cresswell, a young Englishman visiting Virginia, was anchored on the Potomac River when the captain of the schooner he was aboard received an invitation to a barbecue. In his diary Cresswell writes:
“About noon a Pilot Boat came along side to invite the Captn. to a Barbecue. I went with him and have been highly diverted. These Barbecues are Hogs, roasted whole. This was under a large Tree. A great number of young people met together with a Fiddle and Banjo played by two Negroes, with Plenty of Toddy, which both Men and Women seem to be very fond of. I believe they have danced and drunk till there are few sober people amongst them.”
In 1769, future president John Adams attended a barbecue at Dorchester Heights in Boston hosted by the Sons of Liberty. He wrote in his diary that barbecues:
“tinge the Minds of the People, they impregnate them with the sentiments of Liberty. They render the People fond of their Leaders in the Cause, and averse and bitter against all opposers.”
Perhaps this was the beginning of the use of barbecues for political purposes. In 1793, following the ceremonial laying of the United States Capitol cornerstone, a 500-pound ox was barbecued.
Major Lawrence Butler of Westmoreland County, Virginia, wrote a series of letters to Anna Cradock in England. In one of the letters, Butler tells his correspondent that he has attended many “Balls and Barbecues” since his “arrival in Virginia.” Although the letter is dated 1784, the year after the end of the American Revolution, his description of the barbecue that follows is assumed to be similar, if not identical, to those barbecue events that preceded the Revolution. On October 15, 1784, Butler wrote:
“I have the pleasure of informing you I found all my Relations and friends well--I have been very happy since my arrival in Virginia, I am continually at Balls & Barbecues (the latter I don’t suppose you know what I mean) I will try to describe it to you, it’s a shoat & sometimes a Lamb or Mutton & indeed sometimes a Beef splitt into and stuck on spitts & then they have a large Hole dugg in the ground where they have a number of coals made of the Bark of Trees, put in this Hole, & then they lay the Meat over that within about six inches of the Coals, & then they Keep basting it with Butter & Salt & Water & turning it every now and then, untill its done.”
Although Thomas Jefferson is generally thought of as more of a Francophile, he is said to have enjoyed a pepper vinegar sauce, very much like today’s eastern North Carolina sauce. Mary Randolph, an extended family member, developed the recipe from pepper pods boiled in vinegar, then strained.
The following account from the July 26, 1808, Enquirer is of a barbecue to which Jefferson was invited but didn’t attend, choosing instead to stay at the White House where, apparently, no barbecue was being hosted.
“The citizens of Albemarle County convened in Charlottesville to celebrate the 4th of July. The Declaration of American Independence was read to a large assembly in the Courthouse. At three o'clock the company, animated by the presence of many of the most accomplished ladies in the vicinity, sat down to a handsome barbecue provided by Mr. Elijah Garth. After dinner, on the retiring of the ladies, the gentlemen drank toasts to July fourth, the People, the Constitution, America ‘the world’s best hope,’ George Washington, the Patriots of ’76 and to Virginia saying ‘In the war of the revolution she led the van. In the dark period of the reign of terror, she fanned the decaying flame, and cheered the drooping sons.”
James Madison, the nation’s fourth president, and his wife Dolly hosted several barbecues. Dolly Madison’s niece, Mary Cutts, wrote of barbecues at Montpelier (Madison’s plantation in Orange, Virginia):
“Barbecues were then at their height of popularity. To see the sumptuous board spread under the forest oaks, the growth of centuries, animals roasted whole, everything that a luxurious country could produce, wines, and the well filled punch bowl, to say nothing of the invigorating mountain air, was enough to fill the heart . . . with joy! . . . At these feasts the woods were alive with guests, carriages, horses, servants, and children—for all went—often more than a hundred guests. All happy at the prospect of a meeting, which was a scene of pleasure and hilarity. The laugh with hearty good will, the jest, after the crops, “farmer’s topics” and politics had been discussed. If not too late, these meetings were terminated by a dance.”
In the fall of 2011, archaeologists at Madison’s Montpelier plantation in Virginia, unearthed what they believe is a barbecue pit, a trench filled with wood ash, charred wood and “a jaw from a juvenile pig (shoat).”
James Monroe, the nation’s fifth president, lived in the White House between the years 1817 and 1825. He too was a Virginian and many records describe old Virginia barbecues that he attended or hosted.
Our seventh President, Andrew Jackson, had a long history with barbecues. The city of Fredericksburg, Virginia, rolled out the red carpet when President Andrew Jackson visited to preside over the laying of the original Mary Washington, Mother of George Washington, monument cornerstone in 1833. Music filled the air as military processions, parades, dignitaries, and crowds of admirers filled the streets. The occasion drew more people to Fredericksburg than Lafayette's visit to the town in 1824. The event was celebrated with a barbecue "in the old-fashioned Virginia style . . . prepared under an ample awning, in the beautiful grounds of Hazel Hill." Five hundred attendees partook in the Virginia-style barbecued beef.
Although Andrew Jackson has always been a controversial figure, perhaps his most significant contributions to the history of barbecue in the United States were the barbecue trees planted during his presidency. An old newspaper account tells us:
“South of the Washington Elm are the Barbecue Trees planted during Jackson’s Administration by James Maher, a Jolly Irishman who owed his appointment as superintendent of the Capitol Grounds to the President’s personal friendship. These trees are relics of two circular groves intended for barbecue celebrations one for Democrats the other for Whigs.”
Images of the “barbecue trees” were captured by an artist in 1860. The pencil drawing shows two oval groves just outside the Capitol building.
John James Audubon, in his book “Delineations of American Scenery and Character, which describes his travels from 1808 to 1834, dedicated a chapter to describing a Fourth of July barbecue he attended in Kentucky in the early nineteenth century. Beginning in the days leading up to the feast:
“Many servants and some masters had been busily engaged in clearing the area… the grass alone, verdant, and gay, remained to carpet the sylvan pavilion. Now the waggons were seen slowly moving along under their load of provisions, which had been prepared for the common benefit. Each denizen had freely given his ox, his ham, his venison, his turkeys, and other fowls. As columns of smoke from the newly kindled fires rose above the trees and fifty cooks or more moved to and fro as they plied their trade, patriotic activities celebrating national independence commenced.
The day began with a cannon salute and as the explosion burst forth, thousands of hearty huzzas mingled with its echoes. A speech was then given by the most learned of the community which served to remind every Kentuckian present of the glorious name, the patriotism, the courage, and the virtue, of our immortal Washington. Attendees then proceeded to march and sing Yankee Doodle, after which they finally sat down to eat. As the company enjoyed the barbecue feast and the liquor flowed, more patriotic speeches were delivered and toasts honoring the nation and its heroes were made. After the meal was finished, the attendees, which included men, women, and children, danced to the music from violins, clarinets, and bugles.”
As we can see, barbecue was not just a Virginia thing. It spread throughout the states south of what would become the Mason Dixon Line, developing regional eccentricities wherever it went depending on the cultural inputs for the residents – native, black, English, German, etc. In 1808, the local newspaper of Pendleton, South Carolina — Miller's Weekly Messenger — reported on an Independence Day parade that was at once followed by a communal barbecue. As time went on, barbecue spread west and north, resulting in various regional variations in meats – pig in the south, beef in the west and Texas, and mutton in Kentucky, as well as different “styles’ such as the Vinegar-based VA/NC, the Mustard-based in SC, Texas-style, St. Louis-style, Memphis-style, etc.
American barbecue is a blend of traditions from Native Americans, European settlers, and African and enslaved Black people. The cooking method — meat over coals — came from Native Americans. The spices and vinegar for the baste and sauce were imported by European settlers. And the cooking, the perfecting of the sauce and recipes, the digging of the pit that's uniquely American, the chopping of the trees for the fire, the timing of the dish — those belong squarely in the hands of Black people.
We hope you enjoyed today's post on that most American of meals and events, the Barbecue. We hope you can find the time and opportunity to attend at least one authentic barbecue this summer/fall. Please join us again next time when we will once again take up discussion of another early American leader – Virginia Governor James Barbour who led Virginia through the challenging times of the War of 1812.
Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.
Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.
Audubon, J. J., & Herrick, F. H. (1926). Delineations of American Scenery and Character. New York: G. A. Baker & Company.
Di Santo, M. V. (2016). Smokin' Out the Truth: An Early History of Southern Barbecue. Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Bard College.
Equiano, O. (1789). The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself. London.
Hollingsworth, G. D. (1979). The Story of Barbecue. The Georgia Historical Quarterly, 391-395.
Lawson, J. (1709). A New Voyage to Carolina. London.
Plantagenet, B. (1648). A Description of the Province of New Albion. London.
Reed, J. S. (2007). There's a Word for it - The Origins of "Barbecue". Southern Cultures, 138-146.
Talbot, W. (1762). The Discoveries of John Lederer. Lindin: Samuel Heyrick.
Toczyski, S. (2010). Jean-Baptiste Labat and the Buccaneer Barbecue in Seventeenth-Century Martinique. Gastronomica, 61-69.