When you think of barbecue, you may think about good, old Southern cooking. The practice of slowly smoking juicy brisket, ribs, and steaks may be on your mind, but barbecuing didn’t originate from Americans or the South. It happened many centuries before the United States of America was even in existence as a nation. One million years to be exact. This is the estimated period of time when the first human hunted for and cooked meat. Of course, this is not a concrete fact, but with cooked meat being a staple through the centuries, there is much debate on when and how it actually started. One thought process is that humans came across a wild boar that had been killed by a nearby forest first. The humans noticed that the carcass was sizzling, and someone dared to stick their hand in the mammal and taste the meat, which smelled so good. Not the most beautiful of pictures, but it would have been the tastiest thing man had ever tried at this point in history. With a wonderful aroma of cooked meat, it would be hard to go back to what they were eating prior. Furthermore, humans of the time noticed that they would gain energy from the meat, so it was easier for them to hunt, build, etc.
With BBQ being all about the slow cooking and low heat process, it is important to note that this came from China. The early kitchens of Chinese people allowed them to limit the heat output and spend hours cooking to crisp meat to perfection. Chinese people would use coals to heat their meat in urns that were created specifically for cooking. Other countries like India and Japan used similar contraptions to cook the meat appropriately.
If this is still hard to believe, researchers from the University of Haifa in Israel came across evidence that humans cooked up massive amounts of BBQ. Approximately 200,000 years ago, there is evidence that humans would hunt animals like deer, cattle, and boars. From the remains of these ancient animals, researchers noticed burn markings and scrape marks, as if the animals were cooked and eaten off the bone. As soon as humans were able to hang meat over a fire, meals were never the same. This process began with meat being held up by a wooden frame. Early people were concerned the wood would catch on fire, so the meat attached to the wood would hang high over the fire to not burn everything. This meant the cooking process took forever to complete. Next, during the Iron Age, a gridiron of sorts was created to help grill the meat. This was a very efficient and effective method of cooking.
Even with all these BBQ examples, a more accurate historical timeline of barbecuing did not come about until the 15th Century when Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in search of new worlds and routes across the globe. One of the first people groups that Columbus ran into where the people of Hispaniola, which was an island he named. What Columbus noticed was the people of the island cooked meat in a new and interesting way that he had never seen before. The Hispaniola people used indirect heat, which helped keep the food from burning and becoming overcooked. Over time, Spanish explorers would call this type of cooking “barbacoa,” which became the word for barbecue.
As new discoveries were made from the Caribbean Islands to the American inland, explorers, like Hernando de Soto, witnessed Indian tribes cooking their meat in a similar style to the people of Hispaniola. The American colonies began to take the same methods for their own.
When the Southern colonies began to embrace the practice of barbecuing, they did it as a low-cost way to prepare food. With many people in the South being farmers, barbecuing was an easy way to prepare pig meat for eating. Pigs were a great option for meat during this period of time because they could be let loose to eat for themselves. The alternative option, cows, needed tons of food, so buying and using pigs made much more sense economically. Having pig meat became so popular with barbecuing that people were eating 5 times as much pig meat than cow meat during the Civil War.
A barbecue was much more than just cooking a pig. Originally, there were loads of spices and sauces to add when barbecuing a pig. These included rubs that had sweet mustard, spicy mustard, and vinegar. The rubs were influenced by French, German, and British cultures that were immigrating to the United States of America. Also, the African-American population had a lot to do with the barbecuing culture as well. With a mass movement of African-Americans into major cities across the nation around the turn of the 20th Century, barbecuing came with their way of life. Specifically, in the 1950s, BBQ shops popped up all over the South, where in year’s previous, barbecuing only happened from the privacy of people’s homes. In states like North Carolina and Tennessee, dry-rub ribs sprouted like wildfire, and people were coming out of the woodwork to get their hands on this goodness. Barbecue didn’t just include meat, but other food items, too. Fried okra and cornbread were other barbecue staples.
Today, barbecue can be found all over the world, and people are always looking to find the best places to eat this mouth-watering creation. States like North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kansas, and Texas all pride themselves on having some of the best barbecues around, and they can back it up with meat that is slow cooked to perfection. Barbecue will morph and evolve over time, but the way it is prepared will always awaken your taste buds. It did for some of the first humans that have ever walked on this Earth and it will continue to inspire, invigorate, and nourish until the last human walks on land, too. So, eat a piece of history and get to barbecuing.