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Southern Cultures 13.4 (2007) 138-146

There's a Word for It—
The Origins of "Barbecue"
John Shelton Reed

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Figure 1
A French expedition to Florida in the 1560s included an artist, Jacques Le Moyne, one of whose sketches (here) of Timucua Indian life shows a mixed grill of alligators, snakes, and some kind of wildcat.

What could be more southern than barbecue? Even when entrepreneurs have taken the dish to other parts of the world, the names of their establishments pay tribute to the origins of their product, either explicitly (Memphis Championship Barbecue in Las Vegas, Memphis Minnie's in San Francisco, the Carolina Country Kitchen in Brooklyn, the Arkansas Café in London) or at least by implication (Jake and Earl's in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Daisy May's in Manhattan, Dixie's in Bellevue, Washington). Rivaled only by grits as the national dish of the South, barbecue would appear to be as southern, as indigenous, as it comes.

But, for all that southerners have made barbecue our own, the fact remains that this symbol of the South, like kudzu, is an import. The technique of cooking over hardwood coals or a low fire, or with smoke and indirect heat from hardwood, at [End Page 138] a low temperature (about the boiling point of water) exists in a great many different cultures, and has from time immemorial: Europeans and Africans were both familiar with it before they arrived in the New World and found the native Indians doing it. The hogs and cattle that are the usual subjects of the enterprise were brought from Europe, as was the vinegar that goes into most sauces. The peppers that usually go in as well are a West Indian contribution. And tomatoes—well, that's a long story, but let's just say that they weren't grown and eaten in colonial North America.

[Boxed Text: Barbe a Queue]

Even the word barbecue seems to have been imported, although it underwent some changes after it was naturalized in Great Britain's southern colonies. The word came into English only some five hundred years ago. In the first decades of the 1500s Spanish explorers in the Caribbean found the locals using frameworks of sticks to support meat over fires. They did this either to slow-cook it or to cure and preserve it—as we do with country hams and jerky today—which one depends on the heat of the fire and the height of the framework. Both on the island of Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and on the northern coast of South America this apparatus was called something that the Spanish heard as barbacòa, which soon became a Spanish word—one that is making its way into the South these days, via Mexico. A French expedition to Florida in the 1560s included an artist, Jacques Le Moyne, one of whose sketches of Timucua Indian life shows a mixed grill of alligators, snakes, and some kind of wildcat on just such a frame. The native Floridians also had a word like barbacòa for this rig, and indeed for all sorts of wooden structures, including watchtowers and raised sleeping platforms.

Some twenty years later, in 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh sent some folks to look things over on the coast of what would later be North Carolina. One member of that party was John White, "Gentleman of London," who later became governor [End Page 139]

[Boxed Text: The Q Factor]
[Begin Page 141]

of the ill-fated Roanoke Island colony (and grandfather of Virginia Dare who was, as every North Carolina schoolchild once knew, the first English child born in North America). White made sketches of what he saw, including Croatan Indians "broyling their fishe over the flame—they took great heed that they bee not burntt." Unfortunately, he didn't say what the indigenous Tar Heels called their cooker, but whatever they called it, it's obviously a barbacòa, too.

William Dampier, naturalist and sometime pirate...