Friday, July 16, 2010

Could the Yankees Actually be Right? The Derivation of Barbecue

We Southerners are fond of complaining about the way Yankees use the term "barbecue."  As in, "Do you want to come over this weekend for a barbecue?"  We get all excited and fill up a few plastic squeeze bottles with homemade yellow mustard sauce. (If you've eaten Midlands South Carolina barbecue you know what I mean.  If you haven't then you haven't yet fully lived.)  And then you get there they say, "Great, have a beer, and let's go throw some wieners on the barbecue."

This sort of thing drives barbecue purists nuts.  As anyone who got their first taste of slow-smoked pork at Wilber's in Goldsboro, NC, or ribs at the Rendezvous in Memphis or burnt ends Gates' in Kansas City will testify, barbecue is not something you cook on but something you eat.

When an Eastern North Carolinian says, "Give me some of that barbecue," he is referring to finely chopped bits of smoked pork mixed with a spicy, vinegar-based sauce.  A Texan saying the same thing usually means sliced beef brisket, while someone from Memphis may be talking about a basket of pork ribs.  And each of these folks will maintain adamantly that the others are sadly misguided if not outright ignorant and devious.

But not a one of them would say "put some burgers on the barbecue."  That piece of equipment, plainly, is a grill, and the act of cooking a T-bone steak or chicken kebab on it is called grilling.

But, could it be that--perish the though--the Yankees are actually right?  I explain the derivation of the word this way in Barbecue: the History of an American Institution:

The word barbecue comes from the Taino Indians in the Caribbean, where it was the name for a frame of green sticks that was used both as a sleeping platform and for smoking or drying meat. Initially, the word had the dual meaning of a physical piece of equipment and a method of cooking. The English version first appeared in print in Edmund Hickeringill’s travel narrative Jamaica Viewed (1661), which described the hunting of animals as, “Some are slain, And their flesh forthwith Barbacu’d and eat.” Though initially encountered on Caribbean islands such as Jamaica, Western explorers recorded both the word (often spelled “borbecue” or “barbecu”) and the technique being used by Indians ranging from New England to Guiana in South America.
By the end of the 17th century the word barbecue was no longer limited to travel narratives but had moved into the common usage as a synonym for roasting or grilling, even outside the context of food. In Aphra Behn's play The Widow Ranter (1690) a riotous crowd seizes a rebel and demands, “Let’s barbicu this fat Rogue.” Cotton Mather used the term to describe the burning deaths of Pilgrims in Massachusetts: “When they came to see the bodies of so many of their countrymen terribly barbikew’d.” Although “barbecue” would continue to be used in Europe in the general sense of “roast”, it was in the American colonies that it truly took hold and acquired a range of specific meanings.
The engraving below was made in 1590 by Theodor de Bry, who based his image on a watercolor of the scene by English artist John White, who sailed with Richard Grenville in 1588 to explore the coast of present-day North Carolina:

So, while we know that North Carolinians (the original North Carolinians, that is) were barbecuing well before the arrival of English colonists, it seems that the original usage of the word "barbecue" was to refer not to the cooking technique nor the product of the effort but rather the equipment itself.  And, yes, those are fish up there, not whole hogs (sorry Easterners) nor pork shoulders (sorry Piedmont).

So, should we bow to historical usage and allow our friends up North to continue their usage of the word, dissonant as it is to those who like to eat barbecue and not put hot dogs on it?

Of course not.  That would be ridiculous.


Anonymous said...

Ah, yes. Barbeque, the food, not the grill, is to a Southerner like the Madeleine was to Proust. The evoker of place, time, and memories. To that end, could you refresh my memory by providing the link to that video that goes through the different styles of Q in a bluegrass ballad? I can't seem to pull it up from your earlier post.

Robert said...

Sure thing, anon. I'll see if I can dig it up and repost.

Cindy said...

White sailed with Grenville in 1585. 1588 is when Thomas Hariot published his Briefe description of their voyage and findings.

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