Savoring succulent, smoky barbecue food is an American tradition. It’s typically enjoyed at festive gatherings of family and friends during the sizzling dog days of summer, along with a few side dishes and an ice cold beer. For its many aficionados, a barbecue feast is about as American as it gets. Surprisingly, while the saucy cuisine is ubiquitous in Southern cities such as Memphis, it most likely didn’t originate in the United States at all.
No one is exactly sure where the word “barbecue” was first coined. One theory is that it came from the Spaniards, who landed in the Caribbean islands in the 16th century. They used the word “barbacoa,” meaning “beginning place of the sacred fire father,” to describe the native Taino Indians’ technique of slow-cooking meat over a raised wooden structure. In addition to imbuing the meat with a distinctive flavor, smoking their food in this way had a practical purpose as well—it also tenderized and preserved the meat.
Another possibility is that that the word “barbecue” is derived from the French “barbe à queue,” meaning “from head to tail,” and referring to the roasting of an entire animal. Since eating meat was a luxury in many cultures, waste was minimized by using every possible part of the animal. Even the less desirable, tougher cuts of meat would be tenderized by this approach.
It’s believed that the technique of slowly smoking meat was first used during the Stone Age, right after humans began using fire to cook food. Over the millennia, it has evolved into a type of cuisine that is enjoyed world wide, and deliciously enhanced by an endless variety of tangy, sweet, or spicy regional sauces.