A short and incomprehensive history of BBQ

Last weekend, I went to the National Pork Championship at a barbecue festival in Washington, D.C. I was a fish out of water: Barbecue in Texas doesn’t mean pork.

I told someone this. Her reaction: There are different kinds? Isn’t pork normal?

That’s not the first time I’ve heard that. If you’re from any of the major barbecue regions of the country and have ventured elsewhere, you’ve probably heard it too.

So, to clear things up, here’s a quick and dirty guide to the BBQ.

The first thing you should know about barbecue is that it is not the same as a barbecue of the hot-dog variety. I learned this the hard way in college when I was invited to a “barbecue lunch” … of hot dogs, hamburgers and turkey-burgers.*

Barbecue has two meanings. There’s the hot dogs and burger definition: a get-together where meat of some kind is charred on a grill. And then there’s the BBQ kind.

Merriam Webster: To roast or broil on a rack or revolving spit over or before a source of heat (as hot coals)

That’s right. It’s a verb. It’s a noun too when you discuss what you’re barbecuing. But, the important thing here is that “barbecuing” (the verb) is a way of cooking that is not the same as grilling. To people of the Northeast, the West, the upper Midwest, etc this may seem like small potatoes. So, imagine instead someone confusing or conflating searing and sautéing or baking and broiling. That recipe mishap would be a headache. This is what I’m talking about.

Barbecuing entails slow-cooking meat, often over wood, in a long-barreled smoker or over a pit for up to 15 hours or more. When the Village Voice dubbed New York City a barbecue haven in March (full headline: Laugh if you like, Texas, but New York is now a BBQ Capital), the author quoted an Austin barbecue aficionado joking about needing to import wood in order to do it right in NYC. Conventional wisdom holds that the wood, and thus the smoke, affects the taste of the meat. Cooking it slowly helps preserve the flavor and tenderness of the cut.

Like much of history in the south, barbecue’s story is tied up in those of slaves and their descendants. Traditional history holds that when southern slaves were given the worst cuts of meat, they slow-cooked and seasoned it to make it more edible. After the Civil War ended, those families passed on the recipes. Barbecues—labor-intensive but with a lot of food—became gathering points at churches and political rallies. Eventually, two joints in the south became the site of desegregation battles.

These days barbecue varies by region. There are different meats, different sauce bases. (More on that in another post.) In general, Texas goes for brisket; Memphis pork. North Carolina’s sauce is vinegar-based, Kansas City’s tomato-based.

But it’s still all BBQ, and something about the smoky meat, the sauces and the cornbread that’s served with it all makes it special.

*Cultural sidenote: Turkey-burgers were a complete revelation to me when I moved from Texas to D.C. I’m getting more used to them, but something still feels wrong to me. Like eating sugar-free ice cream.

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