BBQ or Barbecue or Barbacoa or Whatever You Call It
Barbecue is a global approach to cooking food; it is found in several corners of the world with some variations in methodology, but all forms of barbecue have the same basic traits. By definition, barbecuing means slow-cooking meat at a low temperature for a long time over wood or charcoal. It is popular across the Caribbean, Mexico and the United States. Barbecue is one one of the earliest forms of cooking, and the low, slow temperature is important. When man first started cooking over fire, the animals were not domesticated, but rather, tracked and trapped. Meat from a wild animal tends to be stringy and tough, and that meat can be hard to eat if it doesn't have a chance to tenderize over fire.
What we know is that barbecue has quite an interesting history, and trying to know exactly when and where it was first implemented is up for debate. Historians believe it can be traced back to the Taino people of the Caribbean. They were wiped out once the Spanish landed on their shores and brought advanced weapons and "old world diseases" that the Taino weren't able to combat. They would be close relatives to Haitians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Their version of barbecue was known as barbacoa and the method involved digging a hole in the ground, making a fire, waiting for the fire to burn down to embers and then cooking their meat over the coals for long periods of time. To this day, barbecue embodies these same basic principles. Barbacoa eventually made its way westward to the Americas, probably with the Spanish, and is a popular dish in Mexico.
Traditional barbacoa is made the same way it has been for hundreds of years; by digging a hole in the ground and cooking the meat over a fire topped with maguey leaves, which is a succulent found in Mexico. Barbacoa is a staple of the open-air markets in Mexico City, making it a popular street food. In most places it is served on warm corn tortillas with guacamole and salsa; at its heart, it is the basis for Tex-Mex tacos. Barbacoa has a more savory flavor compared to Southern BBQ spice blends and has nice medium heat with undertones of cumin, onion and garlic.
Various regions of Mexico use different meats when making their barbacoa. In Northern Mexico they will use the heads of cows or goats. Central Mexico is known for using a lot of lamb, while the Yucatan Region is known for cochinita pibil, a pit style pork. It is also common across all the regions of Mexico to find barbacoa made with sheep.
Culinary historians agree that barbecue was first made in America sometime in the 1800's. Some believe that the western cowboys were the first to cook brisket for an extended period of time, to make the stringy, tough meat more tender. Other historians believe barbecuing started in the South prior to the Civil War. It was typical for farmers to have pigs, but they let them roam the woods until they were ready to be butchered. This led to these essentially wild pigs forming very tough meat. It would be years before they started raising pigs the way we know now.
Barbecue played a very important part of Southern culture in the 1800's. From beginning to end it was an event that would unite entire communities. The slaughter itself was celebrated with invites send out to the whole area. Barbecues proved as a cheap way to gather a large group of people from different social classes, which it made it very popular among politicians and churches.
The first BBQ restaurants weren't so much restaurants, as they were pits. It was essentially a concrete floor with walls and a corrugated tin roof. They were typically only open on weekends because the owners worked on their farms during the week. There were three types of BBQ pits; the upscale white, the white "joints", and the black owned. They all had their certain specialties and it often didn't matter who owned the place if you were in search of great BBQ. Pits were one of the few places before civil rights were you could find people of all ethnicities joining together for some good eating.
Throughout the South there are region-specific BBQ styles. North Carolina is known for its chopped pork served with a peppery vinegar sauce. The Central South (TN, AL, and AR) prefer their pork pulled. Memphis, on the other hand usually uses a tomato based sauce with peppers and molasses. Alabama is also known for its spicier red sauce whereas South Carolina and Georgia prefer a yellow, mustard-based sauce. The biggest outlier is Texas, where they typically use beef instead of pork, and also tend to enjoy barbacoa de cabeza (which if you know any Spanish means BBQ'd cow head).
BBQ or barbacoa or whatever you decide to call it can be found in all corners of the world, and is always prepared essentially the same way. The one thing that will never change about BBQ? You will never find good barbeque in chain restaurants because good barbecue requires care and diligence, not a factory approach to cooking. It is a cooking style that demands, and rewards, patience.
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