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A Brief History of Barbecue

You know what's more American than apple pie? Barbecue.

George Washington oversaw the placing of the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol building in 1793. When the ceremony was done, the crowd didn't celebrate with pie. They dined on barbecue ox.

The creation of barbecue isn't linear. Many different geographical areas and ethnic groups contributed - sometimes at the same time but in different places. Even now, regional differences in barbecue are very real. But here's a general sense of how barbecue as we know it came to be.

Indigenous People, the Spanish, and the Word "Barbecue"

When the Spanish arrived in North America, they noticed how the indigenous people prepared meat. They cooked it over an indirect flame, using green wood so that the food wouldn't burn. Some reports claim the Spanish referred to this style of cooking as "barbacoa." Obviously, that word is just a stone's throw from "barbecue."

As the explorers continued their travels, they took this style of cooking with them. By the 19th century, the technique was used throughout the American South.

Carolina 'Cue

North Carolina's barbecue tradition owes much to the immigrants who settled there and what foods and woods were available. The area's "whole hog" barbecue has roots in the culinary techniques of British colonists. They would baste meat as it cooked to prevent it from drying out. And Carolina's vinegar-based sauces are a reminder of the British taste for tart sauces.

Cowboys Cooking

Workers who found themselves on endless cattle drives across the American West didn't have a lot of nutritional variety. They were allotted the less-than-perfect cuts of meat. But necessity is the mother of invention, and cowboys determined that cooking low and slow could tenderize even the stringiest meat.

This tradition is part of the basis for Texas barbecue. The other main influence is German immigrants who applied Carolina techniques to beef.

Don't Forget Memphis and KC

Then you've got Memphis, where the Mississippi River gave cooks easy access to goods like molasses. Memphis barbecue therefore became a sweet barbecue. Kansas City barbecue developed thanks to a Memphis transplant. This pitmaster opened a barbecue restaurant and offered a variety of meats - not just pork. The sweet and spicy taste of Kansas City barbecue evolved from this kitchen.

Discovering the History of Barbecue for Yourself

Barbecue continues to change and is more beloved than ever. The first barbecue cookbook wasn't published until 1938. And barbecue contests have only existed for about 45 years. Regional tastes are alive and well and barbecue is just starting to gain respect in serious culinary circles. It's an exciting time to see this food evolve.

We hate to break it to you, but there's probably only one way to learn the true history of barbecue. It involves a road trip and hitting a few hundred barbecue joints. If you're game, let us know - we'll join you for a few stops!