The sweltering heat of summer gives way to crisp fall days as multitudes of barbecue lovers lament the traditional end of the outdoor cooking season. Barbecue proves a near and dear commodity to the palates of Americans, especially those residing within the borders of the southernmost states. A traditional staple of Southern cuisine, barbecue was actually borrowed from the culinary stylings of Caribbean chefs. Famed explorer Christopher Columbus was likely the first European to observe a barbecue cookout during his historic voyage to Hispaniola. The native cooks constructed a makeshift, wooden grill laden with meat. Green wood was burned beneath the grate so that the smoke could cook the meat over an extended period of time. Columbus and his Spanish sailors called this style of cooking barbacoa, and a culinary institution was born.
Eventually, this delicious tradition found its way to the American colonies. Historical records show that the hardworking colonists often celebrated with a community barbecue. In fact, one of the very first pieces of legislation drafted by Virginia lawmakers centered around the tradition of the barbecue; revelers were forbidden from firing guns while in attendance of a barbecue. George Washington, a Virginian, naturally enjoyed a good barbecue, and Abraham Lincoln’s parents celebrated their wedding with a barbecue-style feast.
In the relatively early years of American barbecue, pork was the meat of choice. Pigs were a very inexpensive source of meat and required much less maintenance than cattle; pigs were often let loose in nearby woods to freely forage and fend for themselves, resulting in much leaner cuts of meat. Antebellum southerners consumed five times as much pork as beef, and since wheat was difficult to group in the humid fields of the South, cornbread soon became the expected accompaniment to barbecued pork.
Barbecue’s rich history continues to influence the recipe collections of contemporary chefs, most notably in the lively rivalry between the preferred meats of the various Southern regions. Currently, four cities and states serve as strongholds for their respective method of barbecuing. Residents Kansas City, Missouri, craft meaty meals of pork ribs carefully prepared with dry rubs. North Carolinian barbecues go whole hog… literally! This state barbecues the entire hog with a vinegar-based sauce for a tangy, yet savory, flavor. Barbecue connoisseurs in Memphis, Tennessee, nurse a penchant for pulled pork. Barbecue masters in Memphis especially favor pork shoulder which they smoke slowly and slather in a sweet tomato sauce. The divide between the regions is especially evident in Texas where beef is preferred over pork. Barbecue fans from the Lone Star state customarily feast on mesquite-smoked brisket much to the horror of their culinary rivals. Southerners outside of Texas’s borders often claim that beef cannot possibly constitute authentic barbecue, but their protest has not yet had an effect on the Texan taste for brisket.
In spite of the rivalry between the regions, all can agree that barbecue represents a hallmark of American cultures. Whether you enjoy a good pulled pork sandwich or can’t help but crave a slice of Texas brisket, barbecue is a comfort food capable of bringing family and friends together for a memorable evening around the pit.