Barbecue as a verb refers to a style of preparation for various meats, but as a noun it can refer to the social activity where the meat is prepared and consumed, the apparatus used to hold the meat over the fire, or the cooked meat itself. Of the myriad styles and sides, which is best?
Pamela Meister, director of the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University insisted that the best is the one in her mouth at the moment you inquire. She gave an enthusiastic presentation of the history of barbecue at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources western office.
“Face it folks, barbecue is as old as fire,” Meister said. “The cave dwellers figured it out when they discovered that meat tastes better cooked than raw.”
She said inspiration from Native Americans, early English, French, and Spanish colonists found that they could tenderize and flavor wild game and other meat through slow smoking over smoldering wood embers. They improvised several methods of doing it, but typically cut a few trees, dug a long pit in the ground, filled the pit with wood and cooked whole animals overnight over a smoky fire.
The Spanish called this technique “barbacoa,” a term that transmuted into the English “barbeque.” Spanish explorers in the 1500s in the West Indies encountered natives smoking meat using a rack of green twigs, so barbecue made its way into Southern cooking and culture very early in the region’s history.
“Most people have really strong ideas about what barbecue is, and what barbecue it is not. The world in general tends to think about barbecue as cooking meat outdoors over fire, however Southerners get a little more detailed. They do not consider flipping hamburgers on the backyard grill barbecue. They think long, slow cooking over low indirect heat over live wood coals is different from fast cooking over high heat,” Meister said.
Spanish explorers introduced hogs into the New World. Hernando de Soto brought them to Florida and Alabama in about 1540, and the settlers in Jamestown brought swine in 1607. These creatures thrived in the wilds of the warm, Southern woodlands where cattle could not. “By the time of the Civil War, hogs were thoroughly domesticated and pork had really become the principle meat of the South. It is said that the typical Southerner ate five pounds of pork to every one pound of beef, so in a lot of southern minds pork became the meat of choice, and synonymous with barbecue.”
Although pork is usually a given in what food writer John Egerton calls the “Barbecue Belt,” which runs through all or part of seven Southern states; Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, Meister noted that there is much variation according to locality. “Depending on where they live, from the coastal Carolinas to the plains of Texas, Southerners will argue that barbecue is beef or pork, mutton or goat, ribs or chicken, or even link sausage. Universally loved in the South, barbecue is a menu of meat, sauces, and side dishes that change from state to state, and even from one town to the next. In each locale residents claim that their style of barbecue is the best, but nothing in the realm of Southern food is regarded with more passion and enthusiasm by the faithful than a perfectly cooked and seasoned pork shoulder or slab of ribs.”
Before the end of the 1600s Virginia enacted a law prohibiting the shooting of firearms at barbecues, and Carolinians incorporated the word into their common language before the colonial period was over. By the mid to late 1700s barbecues were an important of social entertainment, and George Washington noted in his diary of 1769 that he went up to Alexandria to attend a barbecue. By the late 1800s the outdoor barbecue had moved on into the form of church picnics and political rallies all over the country.
“In the South barbecue frequently was a one party political affair, the candidates vying with each other to provide the best offering of food. Folks gathered from far and near rising at dawn to reach the appointed place in time for speeches and the usual music. A lot of times there was a band present. There were no appetizers, so by the end of speeches everybody had worked up a healthy appetite. And there was usually some type of adult beverage being passed around to raise morale,” Meister said. “As soon as the meat was done it was carved up, put on plates with slices of bread and laid out on long tables so everyone could eat at once.”
Brunswick Stew was an important adjunct to the roasted meat. Scrap meat and bones with vegetables and herbs were put into kettles on tripods, and simmered while the barbecue was cooking. In coastal South Carolina it’s long been popular to serve hot pork hash over rice with barbecue, frequently a pork liver hash.
“The South’s great barbecue tradition is in a large measure a cultural gift from Black men because it took root when slavery was practiced, and African American men were the ones who did the hot and difficult work that was and is a necessary part of good barbecue making. Even today quite a large percentage of the South’s master ‘pit men,’ and now women too, are African American,” Meister said. “In the early decades of the 19th century when accounts of the first started showing up in print it was almost always Black men who were described as tenders of the fire, cookers of the meat, and makers of the sauce, which was and is a closely guarded secret.”
Luella’s Bar-B-Que will furnish free samples of their fare on March 23, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the last day the barbecue exhibit will be open at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources western office on Riceville Road.