(Note - this article, authored by myself, was originally published in 'UK BBQ Mag' in Summer 2018 (p.50). Whilst this publication no longer continues it has been replaced by BBQ Magazine, please check out their website for more details and opportunity to subscribe to this publication which unlike its predecessor is now in print. The original article, which I've amended slightly, can be found here.)
Barbecue is religion…a statement believed by many Pitmasters. But what is the overlap, if any, between barbecue and religion. Well it turns out they are actually almost inseparable. In the last edition of UK BBQ Magazine, I explored how barbecue (of sorts) was responsible for driving human evolution in a very Darwinian fashion. In this article, I take a more theological approach and examine the role of barbecue in religion and discuss whether barbecue is all about religion, or religion is all about barbecue.
In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Hariri explains that early religions based many of their commandments around animals, farming and festivals. Pilgrims and worshippers would arrive at temples with offerings of sheep, goats, chickens and depending on the religion, other animals too. The altar, which we all recognise as a feature in a variety of religious buildings today, was in fact the place where animals were sacrificed and eaten, making temples effectively “a cross between a slaughterhouse and a barbecue joint.” As the offerings were not only slaughtered at the altar, but also cooked and eaten, it meant the priest was also the butcher and the Pitmaster. It is no accident that in ancient Greece the same word, ‘mageiros’, means ‘cook’, ‘butcher’ and ‘priest’. Incidentally, the same word also gives us the present-day word for ‘magic’, and this is easy to see. The way in which a carcass would be transformed by a butcher/chef/priest into food that was fit for the gods certainly would seem like magic. Fire, it could be argued, as a solely human endeavour, is what places humans between animals (who do not master fire) and God with cooking meat over fire human means to send a signal to God. This sentiment is reflected in some of the extracts below and the role of 'offerings' and 'animal sacrifice' (usually involving fire) in Christianity and religions.
Meat eating in ancient times was often governed by religious beliefs and doctrinal rules about how it should be prepared and cooked. Well-known and culturally recognised examples like kosher and halal aside, even the Bible contains detailed descriptions on slaughter and butchery. We see the same rules and doctrinal beliefs today with barbecue, with the community divided on how you should prepare, cook and serve meat. Anyone who has read about or discussed barbecue with an American will realise this divisiveness; whole hog versus pork butt, dry rub versus mopped sauce, vinegar-based sauce versus tomato-based sauce, and the list goes on. If it doesn't meet your specific definition of barbecue, then it ain't barbecue! Furthermore, each person who stands by their tradition is often as defensive of it as they are their religion. Historical context is fine, but what does the Bible actually say about barbecue? Well, firstly, it says that meat is important (sorry vegetarians)…
“When the LORD your God has enlarged your territory as he promised you, and you crave meat and say, "I would like some meat," then you may eat as much of it as you want.” (Deuteronomy 12:20)
A very gastronomic depiction there of biblical "All you can eat buffet", but if we delve a little further we find more detail on the approach one should take with their barbecue…
"So heap on the wood and kindle the fire. Cook the meat well, mixing in the spices; and let the bones be charrea." (Ezekiel 24:10).
It's nice to see that there is a specified culinary element that with the spices specifically mentioned, because you must ensure the flavour profile works, right? If the book of Ezekiel wasn't clear enough that meat should be barbecued, the book of Exodus states it explicitly...
“That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire—head, legs and inner parts.” (Exodus 12:8-10)
…there is even detail in Leviticus on how heavenly meat should be prepared…
"You are to cut it into pieces, and the priest shall arrange them, including the head and the fat, on the wood that is burning on the altar. You are to wash the internal organs and the legs with water, and the priest is to bring all of them and burn them on the altar. It is a burnt offering, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lora." (Leviticus 1:12-13)
...and if that wasn't enough we have a detailed recipe in the Book of Numbers, albeit a simple one but sometimes simple is best...
"Say to them: 'This is the food offering you are to present to the Lord: two lambs a year old without defect, as a regular burnt offering each day. Offer one lamb in the morning and the other at twilight, together with a grain offering of a tenth of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with a quarter of a hin of oil from pressed olives." (Numbers 28:3-5)
…and finally, there are even instructions on how to build a barbecue, and an elaborate one at that…
“Build an altar of acacia wood, three cubits high; it is to be square, five cubits long and five cubits wide. Make a horn at each of the four corners, so that the horns and the altar are of one piece, and overlay the altar with bronze. Make all its utensils of bronze—its pots to remove the ashes, and its shovels, sprinkling bowls, meat forks and firepans. Make a grating for it, a bronze network, and make a bronze ring at each of the four corners of the network.” (Exodus 27:1-3).
Yes, it should be noted that these verses from Exodus describe the design for the arc of the covenant, used to transport the ten commandments, but one can’t help notice the addition of pots to remove ashes, shovels, sprinkling bowls, meat forks, firepans and grates. Sounds like a barbecue to me, a nice bronze-lined barbecue at that.
(Picture copied from the-soul-doctor.com)
Even Noah, who managed to save a breeding pair of each animal from the flood, couldn’t resist barbecuing...as a sacrifice of course...a few of them when he got out of the ark.
"Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: "Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done." (Genesis 8:20-21)
So, at least one authoritative religious source, the Bible, makes it clear that barbecue is the food of the gods, who desired the ‘pleasing aroma’. The historical context also provides us with imagery of ancient Pitmaster-priests taking animals, sacrificing them, butchering them, preparing them and cooking them, sending the scent of slowly cooked meat and smoke towards the heavens. This combined, it shows barbecue and religion share much in common, not just in ancient times but nowadays. The cooking of large pieces of meat and whole animals over a live fire brings together our families, friends and brethren, celebrating a common faith (whichever one that is for you). This is absolutely the essence of the barbecue community…the barbecue family. Barbecue is arguably a way of cooking that still reveres the meat and the use of the whole animal in a way that most other modern cooking practices do not. If you are still unconvinced about the role of religion in barbecue and vice versa, then I challenge any seasoned Pitmaster to deny they haven’t prayed to the great god of barbecue, or whichever god they subscribe to, that their brisket or pork butt eventually emerges from the stall, or that your pit will hold a steady temperature. I certainly have.
If the Bible tells us that barbecue was what the gods wanted us to offer them, and that ancient priests were also Pitmasters, who made barbecue the way to show their appreciation to the gods, then we should rejoice in knowing that what we cook on our barbecues is nothing less than food that is fit for the gods.