top of page

Barbecue: The History of an American Institution

This blog article is a book review of 'Barbecue: The History of an American Institution' by Robert F Moss. Moss starts by highlighting the etymology of the word barbecue, being a derivative from Native American tribes in the Caribbean who used the term to refer to both the frame of sticks used to smoke and dry meat as well as the process itself. Despite the author acknowledging in the introduction that the first recipes for pit-cooked barbecue do not appear until after the Civil War he does present earlier depictions of barbecue as early as 1590. In these engravings and watercolours there are depictions of Native Americans cooking meat and fish over these wooden frames. However, these settler accounts are not from the Caribbean but eastern areas such as Virginia and the Carolinas, indicating that despite the origin being Caribbean the Native Americans had already transferred this knowledge and aspect of their culture across the southern and eastern states. Colonial adoption of barbecue is where the third meaning of the term arrives, that of a gathering and the event (as well as the method of cooking and the device used).

How to grill animals, from ''Brevis Narratio...'', published by Theodore de Bry - retrieved from here.

Despite barbecue being widespread in Native American areas, as the settlers colonised barbecue became more prevalent in the southern states and was little mentioned elsewhere. As the southern states contained vast swatches of plantations where slavery was the norm, barbecue cooking was very often tended by African American slaves on behalf of the slave owners. As the 'go to' method of entertaining, certainly in large numbers, barbecues became the medium by which political rallies and religious occasions were marked. Barbecue, African Americans and slavery have close histories, with barbecues also being one of the paternalistic mechanisms slave owners would use to reward (but also control) slaves.

A Southern Barbecue, a wood engraving from a sketch by Horace Bradley, published in Harper’s Weekly, July 1887. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The book notes that until the late nineteenth century there was little if no commercial aspect to barbecue, but was given away at celebrations, gatherings and other public events. Entrepreneurial individuals did start to capitalise on this with the emergence of the restaurant trade in the twentieth century and is when regional variations on barbecue across the continent start to become apparent. This would be features like beef reigning supreme in Texas and pork being the main taste in eastern areas. It should be noted that this was more driven by the origins of the settlers and what they bought with them rather than regional variations on the native species, the example being that pigs aren't native to America, they were brought by settlers, yet pig is a significant feature of barbecue from colonial times to present day (but not Native American barbecue).

The commercial growth of barbecue in the twentieth century also coincides with the growth of the restaurant industry, the urbanisation of the continent and the growth of the interstate highway road network. All these factors were mutually supporting in that conurbations of people provided a market to sell to, and those travelling between urban areas needed refreshment on the long journeys. The traditions of barbecue being the style of food served to people in North America, albeit not on a commercial basis, made this a natural template for what was able to be provided and what would be in demand.

Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Q which started trading in 1925 and is still running today! Image retrieved from the Big Bob Gibson website.

The book gives stories and accounts of barbecues throughout the ages from the accounts of the first settlers witnessing the Native Indians, to the colonialists conducting their own interpretations. There are also accounts of where barbecue has been a contributing factors in other areas, such as law. In 1914 an employee in a cotton mill asked for time off to host a barbecue, he was denied, but went about it anyway. When he went back to work two days later he was discharged, he challenged the dismissal with the state Supreme Court, and the individual won the appeal, largely attributed to biases in jury members and sympathies that the man skipped work for barbecue!

The racial aspects of barbecue are mentioned throughout and are a significant aspect of the history of barbecue, indeed there are separate entire books on this (that I have read and will likely review in due course). Of Native American origin, taken on by colonists who exploited slave labour to continue their interpretation (with livestock and ingredients they bought with them as well as what was native), but it is worth recognising that barbecues were also one of the only occasions where African American slaves and white slave owners would gather together. So whilst barbecue allows the maintenance of the divide it is also the closest both sides would often get, and most socially acceptable means to do so (among the whites). The role African Americans played in producing barbecue meant they were the best pitmasters with the skills and knowledge passed down through generations, which when segregation ended they were the most widely respected and able to capitalise off the back of this for their livelihoods. Whilst segregation meant in most areas separate dining for black and whites, many barbecue joints in southern states were the first to serve integrated clientele prior to the civil rights movement.

It is a very readable book that goes beyond where more contemporary accounts of barbecue that I tend to come across. It does start with the origins of the cooking method, and the name, and concludes to the present day with barbecue competitions. I recommend this book highly to anyone with an interest in barbecue, American or otherwise.

Front cover of the book Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, by Robert F Moss, image retrieved from here.


Recent Posts
Search By Tags
bottom of page