The origination of the tradition of the barbeque is a bit argumentative, but it has clearly been an American tradition since the early 1800s. It was initiated in the old west, as cowboys were often given meat to cook that was difficult to prepare without some kind of cooking technique.
Fast cooking always produced an undesirable result. Quick cooking normally renders a tough piece of meat. It is also well documented during the slavery days, as slaves were also given cuts to cook similar to the range cowboys. Cooking the entire amounts, such as a whole pig, would keep the meat from spoiling after waiting to be cooked in small portions.
The name is largely thought to be of Spanish origin, and the operation was already in place during the early development of North America. The root word “barbacoa” means “fire from the sacred pit.” Some claim that the advancement of the name was helped during the old roadhouse days, when signs would be placed outside advertising “bar, beers and cues.”
The exact origin is evasive, but the tradition has hung around and refers to the long, slow cooking process associated with smoking the meat being prepared. This can take up to 24 hours for the meat to be to the point where it is fall-apart tender. Cooking temperatures range from cook to cook, based on the type of heat source and the cooking area.
The commercialization would later be increased when restaurants would use the process as a specialty niche. The methods of cooking across the south vary in different locations. This form of cooking has grown in popularity as more modern equipment has been designed by manufacturers to allow families to cook smaller amounts of meat in the same manner, without having to prepare an entire animal.
Originally the preparation was done in a ground pit or the “serious” cook would build a hearth. Often built with fire brick, charcoal and wood were used as the primary sources of heat. Different cooks use different types of wood, as different woods produce different flavors. And heating and cooking recipes are well-guarded secrets with most cooks. Regularly known as the “secret recipe” in many locations, bar-b-gue chefs from all over the country travel great distances just to get into the cooking competitions that are central to this time-honored practice.
It is generally accepted that nothing can be barbegued without the use of sauces, rubs, and marinades. These too are part of the secret recipes, as the special sauces (referred to as dips) are what makes the chef the master chef. Getting a master chef to share his personal recipe can be an exercise in diplomacy for the interested learner. Many barbeque enthusiasts have developed their own process by trial and error, holding true to the requirement of taking plenty of time to allow the food to be as tender as possible.
One thing to remember about the process is that “grilling” is not necessarily the same as barbequeing. Grilling refers to quick cooking, such as grilling hamburgers. The technical term for this technique is brazing. Normally this does not require the grill to be covered. One of the primary factors of smoking a piece of meat is keeping the hearth closed to allow the temperature to build slowly. One of the main tricks is to not lift the lid unless you have something to do in preparation. Though barbegueing is generally considered to be an art, the actual cooking process is still a science with reference to heat intensity and meat thickness.
The popularity of this cooking process has probably endured because it is a great way for people to socialize while the meal is being prepared. The recent popularity of tail-gating in association with seasonal events, coupled with the commercial development of individual cooking devices, has led to the transition of the barbeque becoming central to American life. People are not only social beings, but we all like to eat. And the better the cooking, the better the eating!