Barbecue: An Etymological Discussion

'Tis the season of weekly mowing, preparing the garden, and BBQ (although for some of us, the BBQ season lasts 12 months of the year).  May is officially recognized as National BBQ Month and it's the time that millions of backyard chefs grab their tongs and head outside to cook with fire.

A couple of weeks ago I had an enthusiastic discussion with a few Salemites on Twitter about "what is BBQ" so I thought I'd expand on that a bit.  I'll try to present this as a short etymological discussion, and leave my own personal viewpoint out. There's no way I'll succeed though. I just love barbecue too much.

The origin of the word "barbecue" comes from the word "barbacoa" which is, in general, a form of cooking meat with fire -- all uses and forms of the words BBQ/barbecue/barbeque/Bar-B-Que, etc., started there.  And much like a good swear-word, the word "barbecue" has evolved to something that can be used as several different parts of speech and quite creatively:

verb - "I'm barbecuing this here pork butt today."
adjective - "You can't call that 'barbecue ribs' if you cooked them in the oven dammit."
noun - "My barbecue turned out poorly, I should have used beef."
adverb - "My tri-tip was barbecued to perfection."

And it's used to mean several different things:

Equipment for cooking: "This is my charcoal barbecue."
Method of cooking: "I am barbecuing using hickory today."
What I'm Eating: "This barbecue is the best I've ever had."
A Cookout: "I'm going to a barbecue this afternoon. We're having brisket."

If you're in the south (or the Barbecue Belt), the most widely accepted use is referencing the meat itself -- specifically, it's meat cooked using indirect heat and smoke.  If you're here in the Northwest, you'll hear 'barbecue' used in virtually every way, but most commonly to describe a cookout (calling a 'cookout' a 'barbecue' in the south could be bad for your health), or to describe the process for cooking hamburgers - which is actually grilling.  Grilling is not Barbecuing.  If you're cooking hamburgers or hot dogs, there's a 99.9% likelihood that it's not barbecue.  On that note, barbecue sauce is a sauce used to put on your barbecued meat -- however, putting barbecue sauce on your grilled meat will not magically transform it into barbecue any more than putting barbecue sauce on a piece of cat sh*t would.

Regardless, you can continue to use the word "barbecue" however you want.  Here's my own personal viewpoint - to use the word "barbecue," here's what needs to be involved:
  1. Meat.  Sorry, this is non-negotiable.
  2. Indirect heat.
  3. Slow and Low, i.e., low temperatures and long cooking times.
I actually (mis)use the word "barbecue" in 3 different ways -- to describe a cookout, to describe a method of cooking, and to describe what I'm eating -- but only if I've got those 3 components above.  Without them, there's simply no barbecue.

And if you don't have barbecue, what have you got?

It's National BBQ Month.  Go get a hunk of meat and cook it with some fire.


Can Opener Boy said...

I so totally stole that last statement! Perfect!

Anonymous said...

Your "adverb" is incorrect. Adverbs typically end in Y, and describe the verb, such as "slowly cooking", in which slowly is the adverb and cooking the verb. "Barbecued" is simply a verb in your example.

Do not mislead the people! Grammar is important.

Anonymous said...

Being from NC (the buckle of the BBQ belt where pulled pork is king) I agree that to have authentic barbecue you must allow your meat (be it pork, beef, chicken etc...) to smoke over a low heat for a very long time (around 16 hours for pork butts). It also helps to choose the right wood you wish to use to impart the smoke and flavor. Smoke is a requirement for authentic barbecue. In NC hickory wood is traditional whereas Texans prefer mesquite. BBQ is a way of life for some people, those who do it on the competitive circuit actually make a living at it.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Nightmare,

I am a native Oregonian so I need to get this straight. Since it is National BBQ month, I need to go out to my covered charcoal griller; light one Match-light briquette; put it on the right side of the grill; put a hot dog on the left side of the grill; wait for 16 hours; then eat the hot dog; and I will be a bar-b-quer. OK, it is also required that I have a cup of coffee from Starbucks so I can be identified as an Oregonian.

B. B. Que

Vegan's Nightmare said...

@Anon-1: I knew I was taking a chance by attempting to use BBQ as an adverb. I've always hated adverbs.

@Anon-2 (B. B. Que): In that very specific and very sad situation, I would have to say that no, it is not BBQ, since the "meat" is already cooked. You'd just be re-heating it. If you exchange that with something uncooked such as a hamburger patty, I suppose you could technically call it BBQ -- kinda like you could call a McRib, meat.

Anonymous said...

as a southerner/disgruntled transplanted Q lover (who has woefully commented here in the past on the sad state of life here, q-less, having to have frozen pork gold shipped from out of state), i have to say thank you, thank you! for making the grilling/barbecue distinction. it took me a couple of grumpy cookouts until i figured out the little ruse y'all have going on. if you say bbq, there had better be smoked meat.


Kristi said...

A nod to you VM, fellow lover of all things bbq!

I must add one more item to your list:
4. Wood Smoke

Could be mesquite, hickory, cherry, apple, alder, pecan etc, but that low and slow cooking needs some smoky flavor to it too. :)