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BBQ or Barbecue or Barbacoa or Whatever You Call It

BBQ or Barbecue or Barbacoa or Whatever You Call It

Barbecue is a very interesting type of food in that it is found in several corners of the world in various ways, but they all have the same basic traits. By definition, barbecuing means to slow-cook meat at a low temperature for a long time over wood or charcoal. Various forms are popular in the Caribbean, Mexico and the United States. The reasoning behind barbecue is that when cooking wild animals, regardless of the animal, their meat tends to be much more stringy and tougher. This is because the animals build up that tough muscle that 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. Unfortunately, they were wiped out by disease once the Spanish landed on their shores and brought with them "old world diseases" that the Taino weren't able to combat. If they were around today they would be close relatives to Haitians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. Their version of barbecue was known as barbacoa and was executed by 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. No matter where you go, barbecue is made with these same basic principles. This method eventually made it's 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 found in downtown Mexico City, making it a popular street food. In most places it is served on warm corn tortillas with guacamole and salsa, which 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 know for their cochinita pibil which is a pit style pork. It is also common to find barbacoa made with an entire sheep throughout the country.

American Barbecue

Culinary historians agree that barbecue was first made in America sometime in the 1800's. Some believe that it was the westward cowboys that were the first to cook their briskets for an extended period of time to make the stringy, tough meat more tender. This would make sense for a group of men on a cattle drive. 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 old brisket.

Now, like most cultures that we have talked about in our blog posts, the food can differ from area to area. Even throughout the South there are some 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 though is that you will never find good Barbeque in chain restaurants due to the way it has to be cooked. It is one of the foods that benefits from patience.

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