New World barbacoa
thanks to Amazing Ribs
for letting us info from their website.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus made the first of his four voyages from Spain to the New World landing in what he called Hispanola, present day Dominican Republic and Haiti, and then went on to Cuba, and the Bahamas. Over the next 11 years he came back three more times and set foot on numerous Caribbean islands, Central America, and even northern South America. His tales of the strange new world, its people, animals, foods, and riches, launched a flurry of explorations by Spanish Conquistadors as well as French and English adventurers.
On his second voyage he probably stopped in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa and picked up 20 to 30 cattle, mostly pregnat females descended from portuges and Spanish stock brought there a few decades earlier. Within three weeks they were grazing contentedly on the lush greenery of Hispanola and within a few years Conquistadors brought them to Mexico where Vaqueros, Mexican predecessors of cowboys, drove them north to Texas.
The people they encountered in the Caribbean were unfortunately called Indians since CC had been seeking a route to India. I shall call them Amerindians to avoid confusion.
The first tribesmen he encountered were Arawaks, and the Spaniards tried to document their language and their habits. Unlike Europeans, Arawaks cooked outdoors most of the time, although there are some records of indoor fireplaces. One of their favorite methods of cooking and preserving food was to place it on a wooden frame above the fire. It was built of green wood so it would not burn, had four vertical poles to hold up a grid of more green wood cross pieces, and was usually tall enough to prevent the wood and food from incinerating. The word for this device, they said, was barbacoa and the Diccionario de la Lengua Espanola (2nd Edition) of the Real Academia Espanola traces the origin of the word to the Taino dialect of the Arawak American Indians. The Spanish explorer Gonzalo Fernández De Oviedo y Valdés traveled extensively in the Caribbean and what is now Florida in the 1500s, and he was the first to use the word in print when, in Spain in 1526, he first described the devices.
According to an email from barbecue historian Dr. Howard Taylor "Oviedo is reputed to be a reliable source for translation from these American Indian dialects into Spanish because of his dedication to accuracy and experience as Chronicler to Charles V of Spain. Arawak tribes and dialects of the Arawak language were widely distributed across the West Indies, Central America, and Northern South America."
Of course we will never know precisely what the Taino word was since they had no writing system. I'm guessing it only sounded like barbacoa to the Conquistadors since people usually mispronounce foreign language words. Nobody will ever know for sure, but barbacoa, especially the "-oa" at the end, sounds mighty Spanish to me. Other European explorers reported home that natives in northern South America, especially Guiana, may have called their version of the barbacoa a babracot or babricot or barboka. These are possibly dialects of the many tribal languages or further clumsy attempts to mimick the native words.
During the European explorations of the 1500s Arawak tribes were not native to areas now in the United States, but some Arawak tribes moved into southern Florida during the mid-to-late 1600s. "Florida" which was the Spanish name for all the land they claimed, extending north through modern Virginia and even into New York and west through Louisiana. The English did not arrive in Jamestown, VA, until 1607, and the French did not settle in New Orleans until 1690. Present day Florida was populated with many different tribes, among them the Timucua, Apalachee, Calusa, Tocobaga, Ais, Mayaca, and Hororo, and most of them had adapted the barbacoa and accounts of other explorers show it in use by other tribes far north and west.
In fact, the engraving above shows a barbacoa used by Amerindians in the mid 1580s in what is today North Carolina. It was done by the European engraver and publisher Theodor de Bry and based on a watercolor by a settler, John White. Similar illustrations were made in the 1560s by the first European artist in North America, Miles Harvey and in 1564 by Jacques le Moyne. Note the smoke in the illustration above and the two fish cooking with indirect heat off to the left. The smoke not only cooked the fish, it kept away flies and animals, and preserved it for storage.
The barbacoa however, was the name for a wooden rack, not just a cooking device, because other early explorers described similar devices being used to store food above the damp ground and out of reach of animals, as well as a bed for sleeping above the snakes and insects. Oviedo described "a loft made with canes, which they build to keep their maize in, which they call a barbacoa." According to the Historical Dictionary of Cuba Second Edition by Jaime Suchlicki, the Ciboney Indians of Cuba even called their primitive dwellings barbacoa. The Bishop of Cuba, Gabriel Diaz Vara Calderon in 1675 wrote after a 10 month journey through Florida "They sleep on the ground, and in their houses only on a frame made of reed bars, which they call barbacoa, with a bear skin laid upon it and without any cover, the fire they build in the center of the house serving in place of a blanket."
A French explorer describes a cooking barbacoa here: "A Caribbee has been known, on returning home from fishing, fatigued and pressed with hunger, to have the patience to wait the roasting of a fish on a wooden grate fixed two feet above the ground over a fire so small as sometimes to require the whole day to dress it." That's low and slow cooking, folks.
The DeSoto National Memorial in Bradenton, FL, not far from the place where the Spanish explorer is believed to have landed in 1539 with 400 soldiers, horses, and 300 hogs, the first to inhabit North America, has a small replica barbacoa on display. DeSoto also had with him 2,500 pork shoulders, probably packed in barrels with salt. Bacon was well known and likely came with the explorer.
The first to describe the use of the barbacoa for cooking was Hans Stade, a German in the service of Portugal captured by Indians in Brazil in 1547. He escaped and returned to Europe in 1555. His 1557 book "True History" included woodcuts he supervised showing a barbacoa. Here's how he described the device, which he did not name "When they want to cook any food, flesh or fish, which is to last some time, they put it four spans high above the fire-place, upon rafters, and make a moderate fire underneath, leaving it in such a manner to roast and smoke, until it becomes quite dry. When they afterwards would eat thereof, they boil it up again and eat it, and such meat they call Mockaein." His accounts include extensive use of the device for cooking human flesh.
The first recorded barbecue in the Southeastern US may have featured human flesh. In April 1528, Panfilo de Narváez set out with 400 men and 80 horses from Cuba to explore Florida and search for gold. They landed in the Tampa Bay area and foolishly lost contact with their ships. They were quickly set upon by hostiles and tried to retreat by building boats and sailing for Panuco on the east coast of Mexico in New Spain. A few made it to Texas and over the course of about 2 years their numbers dwindled to 4, among them Cabeza de Vaca. Navarez perished at sea. In spring of 1536, the party made it to the Spanish settlement of San Miguel de Culiacán on the lower San Lorenzo River.
While they were lost, the Spanish governor of Cuba sent out a search party that also ran into trouble. One member of the party, Juan Ortiz was captured by the Ozita tribe. They decided to sacrifice him by torture and tied him to a barbacoa-like device. The chief's daughter took pity on the slowly roasting man and convinced his father to release him. Ortiz was not flipped, so he was permanently scarred on his back. Ortiz lived for years with the tribe until he was rescued by a party led by a fellow Spaniard, the explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto (shown here). Ortiz joined de Soto as an interpreter.
After helping conquer the Incas in Central America, de Soto had sailed from Cuba to Tampa Bay in 1539. He brought about 650 men, many horses, dogs, and Spanish hogs, which were not native to the continent. He then set out exploring and pillaging what is now the Southeast of the US.
According to Charles Hudson's 1998 book Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando De Soto and the South's Ancient Chiefdoms, on March 25, 1540 a party of about 40 Spaniards led by de Soto invaded a village in what is now Georgia and found venison and turkey smoke roasting on a barbacoa-like device. Although the word had not been brought north by Indians yet, DeSoto called it a barbacoa because he had probably heard the word in Spain. Famished from a 35 hour ride, despite the fact that it was Holy Thursday, they feasted on the first barbacoa in recorded history.
On May 17, 1540, according to Hudson, they enjoyed another meal cooked on a barbacoa near present day Salisbury, NC: Corn and small dogs.
According to Sam Brookes, Heritage Program Manager of the National Forests in Mississippi, in December 1540, near what is now Tupelo, Mississippi, de Soto collaborated with the Chickasaw tribe on a feast featuring pork from Spain cooked on a barbacoa. The Chickasaws loved their pork barbecue (can you blame them?) and even stole hogs from DeSoto. The Spanish adopted the cooking method and refined it.
Eventually the method of cooking found its way north to the English colonies in Virginia and the Carolinas where they doused the meat with a favorite condiment from home, vinegar. Vinegar remains the major ingredient of most sauces in Eastern North Carolina and South Carolina to this day. German settlers were fond of mustard on their pork so the classic mustard based barbecue sauce of South Carolina evolved.
The first big barbecue in Texas, according to Taylor, "Was probably held on April 30, 1598, near San Elizario on the Rio Grande, about 30 miles Southeast of El Paso, TX. The leader of the later celebration was Juan de Onate." Natives were present, and it was a traditional, religious, outdoors feast that included spit roasted wild game and birds and native vegetables in addition to the usual salted pork, hard biscuits and red wine from Spain.
According to etymologist Michael Quinion, William Dampier, in his New Voyage Round the World of 1699, used the word in English for the first time to describe a raised wooden sleeping platform that protected Indians from snakes: "And lay there all night, upon our Borbecu's, or frames of Sticks, raised about 3 foot from the Ground." One can assume there was no fire beneath. According to Quinion, the Dictionary of National Biography describes Dampier as a "buccaneer, pirate, circumnavigator, captain in the navy, and hydrographer." Ironic that the first to use the word in English should be described as a buccaneer since that occupation comes from the French word boucan, "which in turn comes from mukem, a word used by a group of Brazilian Indians, the Tupi, for a wooden framework on which meat was dried."
The evolution of barbecoa into barbecue
In colonial times, long before gas and electricity, almost all food was cooked with wood. The fireplace and hearth also doubled as a cooking center, with rotisseries and side ovens warmed by the fire as seen below in the Old Stone House, built in 1765 in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. At right is a device called a bottle jack or roasting jack that had a spring mechanism that rotated the meat, a drip pan to collect juices, and a rear door for basting.
George Washington had a large smokehouse at his plantation at Mt. Vernon, VA (shown at right). On May 27, 1769, the aristocrat, not yet our President or even a General, wrote in his diary (2:154) "Went in to Alexandria [VA] to a Barbecue and stayed all Night." So the tradition of partying all night with outdoor cooked meat can be traced back at least this far. Washington even hosted "a Barbicue of my own giving at Accatinck" in September 1773.
Alas the exact menus and cooking method are unknown, but pork and ox were popular at the time, and whiskey would have been served. Washington even built a distillery at Mt. Vernon in 1797.
According to the book Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon edited by Stephen A. McLeod, "Barbecues were lively social events..." and Washington brought 48 bottles of French claret to one. "During the Christmas season of 1773, he came outside to find his stepson and some visiting friends 'pitching the bar' which was probably similar to horseshoes. Painter Chales Willson Peale later recorded that '[Washington] requested to be shown the pegs that marked the bounds of our efforts; then, smiling, and without putting off his coat, held out his hand for the missile. No sooner... did the heavy iron bar feel the grasp of his mighty hand than it lost the power of gravitation, and whizzed through the air, striking the ground far, very far, beyond our utmost limits. We were indeed amazed, as we stood around, all stripped to the buff, with shirt sleeves rolled up, and having thought ourselves very clever felloes, while the colonel, on retiring, pleasantly observed, 'When you beat my pitch gentlemen, I'll try again.''"
The flavor of slowly smoke roasted meat with flavorful sauce grew in popularity, especially in the southern US. Many plantations had smokehouses, primarily for preserving meat, especially hams. Slaves did most of the cooking, maintained the smokehouses, and were given responsibility for preparing open pit barbecues for big celebrations such as weddings, holidays, and political gatherings.
Andrew Jackson, our seventh President from 1829 to 1837, had a large smokehouse behind his manor at the Hermitage near Nashville, TN. It was built between 1819 and 1821 and has been brought back to its original condition. At right is the restored smokehouse showing how hams were brined in dugout log tubs and then hung from the rafters while smoke was introduced.
Smokehouses were common in the back yards of many homes, and a few even had meat smoking closets attached to their chimney in an upstairs room. A simple damper would divert the smoke from the downstairs fireplace into a sealed room and it would circulate and exit back up the chimney.
In the pre-Civil War South, Master got to eat the best cuts of meat. They ate the tenderloin from along the pig's back, "high on the hog" (yes, that's where the expression came from), while the slaves got the tougher, more gristle-riddled cuts. Raw pork was often pickled by storing in a barrel of brine. It didn't take them long to learn the concepts of low and slow cooking with smoke to make the tenderest most juicy meats from these less desirable cuts. Kindlier masters would reward their slaves with barbecues at Christmas and Independence Day, irony missed, I'm sure.
President US Grant had a state of the art wood burning stove installed in his hole in Galena, IL. It provided heat, had several surfaces and chambers for cooking, and even a chamber for smoking.
In 1913, Martha McCullogh-Williams wrote Dishes And Beverages Of The Old South. Born in 1848, she was a teenager through the Civil War, and her family had slaves. The book has many recepies taught to her by her black Mammy. She describes a barbecue that is similar to other accounts from the era: "The animals, butchered at sundown, and cooled of animal heat, after washing down well, are laid upon clean split sticks of green wood over a trench two feet deep, and a little wider, and as long as need be, in which green wood has previously been burned to coals. There the meat stays twelve hours -- from midnight to noon the next day, usually. It is basted steadily with salt water, applied with a clean mop, and turned over once only. Live coals are added as needed from the log fire kept burning a little way off. All this sounds simple, dead-easy. Try it -- it really is an art. The plantation barbecuer was a person of consequence -- moreover, few plantations could show a master of the art. Such an one could give himself lordly airs -- the loan of him was an act of special friendship -- profitable always to the personage lent. Then as now there were free barbecuers, mostly white -- but somehow their handiwork lacked a little of perfection." The picture at right is a public barbecue in Texas in the 1960s using pretty much the same method.
Barbecues were not common in the 1800s. They were for special occasions and events. Slaves and poor whites ate mostly pork and chicken, but sometimes there was beef, mutton, or fish, depending on where they lived. Corn meal was also a staple, as were greens, especially collards, and beans. Corn, oats, and wheat were often stored in an open air crib on some farms. Some even had potatoes. Molasses from the Caribbean was occasionally available. Liquor and coffee were not uncommon. Peanuts were readily available in Georgia and a faux coffee was made from roasted peanuts and corn. Most of the dairy products, butter, milk, cream, and cheese, went to the big house. Just about everything was fried in the plentiful pork lard.
This was not haute cuisine. The Tallahassee Sentinel on April 23, 1867 published "Observations in Tropical Florida (from a report made in the Spring of 1866 to Col. T.W. Osborn, by Col. Geo. F. Thompson, and never published before)". Thompson, sounding like a modern restaurant critic, wrote "The principal food is pork, corn bread, hominy and Hayti potatoes, and what these articles naturally lack in repulsiveness to a refined taste, is fully made up in the abominable manner in which they are cooked and served. To cook a piece of meat, with them, means to fry it to the consistency of a piece of dry hide, and made about as palatable and digestible as live oak chips. The corn bread is usually made (the process I have never learned) so as to be about as delicious and gratifying to the taste as an equal quantity of baked saw-dust."
He continued: "Grease is used excessively as food; indeed, so repulsive is the manner of cooking, that to a person of refined habits and taste, nothing but the direst necessity and a deep sense of moral obligation to preserve his own life, could induce him to undergo such a diet. People living on the Gulf coast live much better, the art of cooking receiving much ore attention, and the articles of food being more numerous; in the interior, if we judge of the civilization of the inhabitants by the proficiency in the art of cooking and living generally, I fear the would take rank but little above the savages. I have frequently sat down to the table when my olfactories and stomach have joined in a united protest against the task before them, and have only quieted them by the plea of necessity."
Eventually the saplings used to hold the meat over the open pits in the ground were replaced by metal gridirons, and before long the pits were built with stones or bricks above ground. The photo at right is a stone barbecue in a Long Island park in 1936. Magazines like Sunset in California ran plans for building stone and brick barbecues in your back yard and barbecue was something Dad could do in the suburbs on weekends and after a long day of work.
In 1897 Ellsworth Zwoyer patented the charcoal briquet. The briquet really took off when, in the 1920s, Henry Ford, in collaboration with Thomas Edison and EB Kingsford, began commercial manufacturing by making them from sawdust and wood scraps from Ford's auto plants in Detroit. The Kingsford Company then built the town Kingsford, MI. The company was later sold, and today Kingsford converts more than one million tons of wood scrap into briquets a year. So Ford not only brought the world affordable cars, he created an industry that made backyard barbecue easy. Click here to read about the Zen of Charcoal.
Meanwhile, there was a migration going on as freed slaves and sharecroppers started moving north to the industrial centers, among them Kansas City. The flow peaked between 1879 and 1881. Among the migrants was young Henry Perry, born in 1875 in Shelby County, TN, not far from Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi River. At age 15 he got a job on steamboat as a cook. His new job took him to Minneapolis, Chicago, and finally Kansas City where he got a job in a saloon, according to Doug Worgul superb book, The Grand Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities and Techniques of Kansas City Barbecue.
In 1907 Perry started a barbecue stand and eventually moved it indoors, plying a skill he probably learned in Shelby County. It was the first commercial barbecue stand in what is now the nation's most important barbecue center. According to Worgul "In February 1932, 25 years after Henry Perry first opened his barbecue business, The Call, Kansas City's leading black newspaper, published an interview with Perry. The article notes that there were in Kansas City at that time 'more than a thousand barbecue stands.'"
The Call notes that Perry's food was popular with everyone, although the sauce had a reputation for producing tears it was so hot. Not at all what we think of as KC style today. "With a trade about equally divided between white and black, Mr. Perry serves both high and low. Swanky limousines, gleaming with nickel and glossy back, rub shoulders at the curb outside the Perry stand with pre-historic Model-T Fords. Liveried chauffeurs gaze haughtily at humble self-drivers -- but all have the common ambition, to sink their teeth in a bit of Perry's succulent barbecue."
Perry was "The Barbecue King" not just because he was first, not just because he eventually had 3 restaurants, but because, as he explained to The Call, "the special way I prepare my meats. Cooking only over a fire made from hickory and oak woods the meat gets that delicious flavor which is the cause of the tremendous popularity of barbecued meats."
Among Perry's and disciples were Arthur and Charlie Bryant who opened Arthur Bryant's in 1930. The KC landmark was called the nation's best restaurant by New Yorker columnist Calvin Trillin. It still considered a required pilgramage to barbecue lovers around the world. Perry died in 1940, but today KC has more barbecue restaurants per capita than any city in the world. It is, in the words of Kansas City Barbecue Society Founder Carolyn Wells, "The Constantinople of Barbecue".
Nobody knows when the first barbecue restaurant was opened. Some say it was Perry's in Kansas City in 1907, but I have found references to barbecue restaurants in old newspaper going back to Flemings barbecue restaurant on Decatur Street in the Atlanta Constitution on October 30, 1897.
Modern barbecue becomes portable
Brick and fieldstone barbecues were a pain to build. Somewhere somebody cut the trop off a steel drum, dumped charcoal into the bottom, and put an expanded metal grate on the top. His neighbor had a better idea. He cut a steel drum in half lengthwise, hinged the two parts together like a clamshell, and attached four legs. Next thing you know, Popular Mechanics is running plans for making a barbecue from an oil barrel.
Then, in 1948, H.J. Heinz introduced the first nationally distributed barbecue sauce. Since then there have been a gazillion brought onto the market. Click here for more about the history of barbecue sauces and their regional styles. Every neighborhood BBQ joint has their sauce in bottle and the grocery store shelves are bulging with them. Click here for some of my faves.
Also in 1948 Grant "Hasty" Hastings introduced the Hasty-Bake oven with a hood, and an adjustable height charcoal tray. They are still made today, and the modern version is one of my all-time favorite grills.
Three years later, in 1951, George Stephen, Sr., was frustrated by his inability to control the heat in his backyard grill. He had the welders at the Weber Brothers Metal Works, where he worked, cut up a buoy that was to be used for Lake Michigan boating. The Weber Kettle was born and introduced in 1952 (shown at right). Among its innovations was a tight-fitting lid and adjustable air vents that allowed the cook to control temperature. Much of the early marketing involved touting the merits of "covered barbecuing". The system is efficient, burning a minimum number of briquets during cooking." Probably no other single invention has influenced the American diet more since the invention of the electric refrigerator.
Before long the Japanese Hibachi, a small portable charcoal grill without a top migrated to the US and next thing you know they had lids and handles, perfect for President Eisenhower shown here do his guy thing on a porch at the white house, and perfect for Gidget's beach parties.
Founded in 1853, the Columbus Iron Works in Columbus, GA, manufactured kettles and ovens, stream engines, as well as swords, pistols, and rifles for the Civil War. In 1925, the W.C. Bradley Company acquired control, and in 1953 it started selling its first Charbroil charcoal grill. Bradley has aquired numerous other manufacturers and is today one of the largest in the world. In 2006 Bradley moved all manufacturing to China, but the company headquarters are still in Columbus, and the Iron Works has been restored and turned into a convention center.
In the 1960 Walter Koziol's Modern Home Products produced the first consumer gas grill in Antioch, IL, the Charmglow Perfect Host. It was round, 22.5" across with a reflector and wind break over half the grill. A rotisserie could be mounted to the reflector. It used natural gas piped to it from the house. During the 1970s, Char-Broil became the first brand to put a liquid propane tank and a grill in one box. Gas grills soon became more popular than charcoal because they are easier to start and stop and there is less cleanup.
Meanwhile hungry Texas oil rig welders began building heavy duty steel cookers from oil barrels, huge pipes, and large propane tanks creating tubular "pits" that could be mounted on boat trailers and towed from jobsite to jobsite. Some were fitted with boxes on the side to hold logs and allow the cook to smoke meats with indirect heat, low and slow. Nowadays they have gotten complex and expensive.
On Chirstmas Eve 1963, just a month after President John Kennedy was murdered, President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Ladybird, frazzled from, as Ladybird described it, the "tornado of activity that has surrounded us" retreated to their Texas ranch on Christmas Eve. West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard was scheduled to visit Kennedy to discuss the Soviet threat, the Berlin Wall, and other important matters. Rather than return to Washington for a formal State Dinner, LBJ invited Erhard and his entourage on down to what historians claim was the first official Presidential barbecue in history. Yes, Johnson's first state dinner was a barbecue for 300 in Texas on December 29, 1963. Click here for more about how LBJ used barbecue to advance his policies.
In 1976, brothers Mike and B.B. Robertson, started fabricating a revolutionary design for a commercial barbecue oven aimed at restaurants under the name Southern Pride. It eventually evolved into an impressive high tech motorized temperature and smoke controlled device that today can be controlled by computer. They burn gas for heat, and logs for smoke. Today hundreds of restaurants use them.
In the 2000s grill/smokers that burn pellets made from sawdust started gaining popularity. The latest have digital controls making barkyard grilling, roasting, and smoking as easy as indoors.