Bites of History: Summer cooking on the grill can lead to debate

The culinary stubbornness over what constitutes proper barbecue happens to mostly take place in what is known as the barbecue belt, from Virginia down through Texas.

Oftentimes folks from this region boast so much about their respective ways of charring meat, the captured listener is apt to jump to the conclusion that barbecue was invented in the American South. But although it is highly likely we perfected the art, Southerners certainly weren’t the first to throw meat onto a pit.

Grilling is done fast and on high heat, while barbecue lingers for hours on indirect heat. So, technically, grilling came first, when some unlucky animal got caught up in a natural fire and ended up as a cave man’s dinner.

The purposeful cooking of grilled food likely started 1.4 million years ago in a cave in South Africa, where burnt bones point to probable evidence of a human-controlled fire.

Depending on whom you ask, humans theoretically figured out how to make fire and transport it between 400,000 to 1 million years ago. But by then, it’s a good bet that raw meat was passé, with meats such as grilled boar and mammoth already the rage.

For thousands of years, the favored way of barbecuing around the world was spit roasting, with whole animals or huge hunks of them harpooned through a green stick and turned slowly over flames.

The first grill plate was in the form of a wooden frame that held meat well above a fire to keep the frame from burning, and which resulted in the meat cooking slowly and absorbing smoke. Then along came the Iron Age, around 1300 B.C., and the invention of the gridiron, a metal grate similar to what’s on our modern barbecue pits, and, voila!, we have grilling as we know it.

The word “barbecue” evolved from barbacoa, a term that originated in the Caribbean and appears in Spanish writings to describe the indirect grilling done by the islands’ indigenous Taino. It was also the Spanish who brought over cattle and pigs.

And we know for sure that British colonists liked to roast over open fires, as did Native Americans. Even so, in his book “Smokestack Lightning” (2005), New Orleans-born food journalist Lolis Eric Elie presents evidence that the first to cook real barbecue in what is now the U.S. were African slaves from the Senegambia regions of West Africa.

Arriving in South Carolina in 1526, these slaves were part of a Spanish expedition from the West Indies, where cooks destined for the Carolina area likely learned new seasoning and roasting techniques. Documents also show that during the antebellum era, slaves almost exclusively tended plantation barbecue pits.

Those smoking skills were handed down through families, which explains why so many African-Americans in today’s South own so many successful barbecue restaurants.

Back to the serious business of style — Virginia and North Carolina grillers prefer “whole hog” barbecue doused with a vinegar-based sauce, which was adopted from the British.

Just a little farther south, the mustard-based sauce used on the pork of South Carolina is a remnant of a large population of Dijon-loving French, along with German immigrants, who always paired their wursts with sweet and spicy mustards.

The Kansas City, Missouri, sweet tomato-based sauce grew out of the kind that originated in Memphis, Tennessee, a city that, in steamboat days, had access to everything that flowed up and down the Mississippi River, including hot spices and molasses.

Regarding meat, Kansas City seems to be somewhere in the middle, slathering their signature sauce on both pork and beef. Memphis, on the other hand, seems to have abandoned its use of sauce, opting instead to use dry rubs on its preferred meat, baby back ribs.

Lastly, on the western edge of the barbecue belt lies Texas, where land to cultivate cattle has always been aplenty. There, German immigrants took the Carolina pork with mustard sauce technique and adapted it to a totally different animal.

Texas’s abundant use of beef brings up the age-old argument, one usually perpetuated by pork-loving Carolinians — just what kind of meat actually constitutes real barbecue?

In Louisiana, we tend to be equal-opportunity grillers and barbecuers, choosing to baste every edible protein and vegetable imaginable with myriad commercial sauces, including the onion-based style that originated in Cajun country, as well as our own varied secret sauces.

So let our friends in the other regions of the South argue. We really don’t care who invented or is cooking what. We’ll just keep on lighting our pits and, without the fuss, sit here enjoying barbecue cooked in the style we like best — our very own.

Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her through www.cynthianobles.com.

Sources: foodtimeline.org; archaeology.about.com; Elie, Lolis Eric. Smokestack Lightning (Ten Speed Press, 2005); smithsonianmag.com.