As we keep a little closer to home this summer, many of us will plan more fun around it. “We expect backyard chefs will cook out more than ever this year as home becomes a secure haven around which to plan more family togetherness and enjoy casual, relaxed entertaining,” says Donna Myers, barbecue spokesperson for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA).
Barbecue’s a celebration thing. You can get into it whole hog with huge grills loaded with bells and whistles. Add to this specialized gadgets such as ThermoForks, just-right lifters, brushes, skewers, utility baskets, rubs, marinades, sauces, wood chips, special gloves, basting mops, food tents, chef aprons, a dinner bell even special smoke-free goggles. It’s a $6 billion-a-year industry!
It’s funny how something so pleasurable any year can stem directly from ancient beginnings 750,000 years ago. Up until then, early man ran away from fire. Once he learned to control it, he could light the night and warm his bones. Soon he learned to cast a slain animal onto the fire which made the meat tender and juicy. A few generations later his jaws evolved to a smaller size from less rigorous chewing. Gradually, utencils, crude skillets, pots for boiling and ovens made “off-fire” cooking possible.
We get our word, “barbecue,” from “barbacoa” which probably came from a similar word in the Caribbean Arawak language for a structure on which meat dried and was roasted over a fire. The whole hearth was known as a “boucan.” From this time, the French called those who tended them “boucaniers,” and they were also men who went to sea as pirates, hence our word, “buccaneers.”
The French Haitians claim that “barbecue” came from “barbe a queue” meaning “from head to tail,” how a spit is run through the length of an animal. Others feel the word stems from a 19th century ad in a southern magazine for a combination of BAR-BEER-CUE, a barroom, beer hall and pool room where they also roasted pigs.
In the 19th century barbecues were church groups, political rallies, group events where all classes enjoyed eating together. Pork was popular and easily raised. They could put pigs out to root, then catch and kill them when food was in short supply. They were called “semi-wild” pigs. Every part of the pig was used, and ears, organs and tails turned into popular dishes. Pig slaughtering was a time for celebration. At such events, roasted pig was accompanied by covered dishes prepared by the ladies. Gradually, barbecue was available to individual families, and single pit owners sold take-away food mostly on weekends. With the arrival of the automobile, the “BBQ” shack gained a wider clientele.
In the Midwest, to barbecue was to dig a pit in the ground and light a fire in it. Next, they lined it with rocks and left them until they were evenly hot. Then a whole animal was wrapped in a wet sack, placed on the rocks and covered with leaves or corn husks, earth and a heavy cover. It cooked for several hours.
Clambakes qualify as barbecues, for they have all the elements of the Midwest method. Early northeastern seashore settlers learned to build these bakes from Native Americans. They gathered clams, lobsters, corn-on-the-cob and big potatoes, placed them in the ground and covered them with seaweed instead of corn husks. This is similar to the Polynesian technique which may have reached North America from the Pacific. In Honolulu, it is a “Luau.”
Men have always done most of the actual barbecue cooking, and this continues. Sociologist Margaret Visser in her book, Rituals of Dinner, states “…men may jocularly don aprons and set about enjoying the process of cooking. Barbecues begin with male-dominated firemaking. This takes place outside the house – though not necessarily very far from it – and the “masculine” live fire is accompanied by the special grids, knives and skewers. The women tend to take care of the salads, the plates, the dessert and washing the dishes afterward.”
Burt Wolfe, author and food historian, explains gender roles on food occasions this way. “Throughout history and all over world, men have insisted that meat is their thing. Men do the hunting for meat. They get together in groups and incorporate ancient rituals with as much drama as possible. “The expression ‘bringing home the bacon,’ which now means making the money to buy the meat,” continues Wolfe, “is simply a modern-day metaphor for the same ritual. Of course the food supply produced by women who gathered berries and edible plants was much more dependable and fundamentally much more important to the overall diet.”
Barbecue sauces, rubs and marinades are where indivuality comes in. And smug is the cook who has a secret recipe friends and relatives can’t get from him. Fierce barbecue “killer” sauce competitions take place annually.
There’s also many ways to tweak the fire for more flavor. In Europe vine prunings bring flavor to the fire; in North America mesquite is popular. Hickory is big in the western U.S., while France uses fennel stalks to flavor some foods.
Some meats, fish or vegetables have better flavor if marinated before cooking. Sometimes rubs, pastes or spicey sauces are the answer. Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly co-authored the book, The Complete Meat Cookbook, and in it, they give 31 different recipes for dry rubs and pastes for meat.
Additionally, Aidells advises, “If you use a barbecue sauce or glaze that contains sugar or any other sweetening such as molasses or ketchup, do not apply it before or during grilling over direct heat. Brush it on only when the meat is cooked and off the grill.” Sugary coatings burn, he explains and “Make the meat look as if it came out of a blast furnace.”