Well, let’s start with why we don’t. In a cutesy attempt to propagate the myth that true barbecue can only be achieved by going “whole hog”, some pit masters and food historians have put forth the claim that “barbecue” derives from the French “barbe a queue” or “beard to tail”. While catchy, the francophile derivation is based less on logic than the simple sound of words. This is as plausible as positing that the word “sandwich” was derived from desert enchantresses conjuring sliced bread to bind grit from soiling cured meats. It paints a pretty picture, but is patently absurd.
Equally fanciful, but no less untrue, is that there was a bar. In this bar, they drank beer. While they drank beer, they played pool? Bar. Beer. Cue.
And no, there was no legendary cattle rancher who branded his herd with the initials B.Q., the two letters topped by a branded bar. Bar + B + Q = Nope.
Barbecue - both the food and the technique for cooking it - is much older than that.
While the first barbecue may very well have taken place over a million years ago (more on that next week), the word “barbecue” most likely derived from the Arawak peoples of South America and the Caribbean. Their word barabicu is a noun that translates as “a framework of sticks set upon posts”, thus describing the method of cooking rather than the food being cooked.
This being the Age of Exploration (and thus an era ripe with conflict, conquest, and cultural appropriation), the etymology of “barbecue” can be traced to the Spanish “barbacoa” before passing through Portuguese and French before taking on the English form we use today. Edmund Hickeringill chose to verb his cue, noting in his 1661 publication Jamaica Viewed that during a hunt, “some [animals] were slain, their flesh forthwith Barbacu’d and eat.” British buccaneer William Dampier called dibs on the noun form in 1697 when, writing in his tome New Voyage Round the World, he first described the low-and-slow philosophy: “... and lay there all night, upon our Borbecu's, or frames of Sticks, raised about 3 foot from the Ground”.
Today, due in no small part to the long linguistic journey it took to reach Southeastern American shores, barbecue can mean many things. As a noun, it can be both the food, the equipment used during cooking, and/or the gathering at which the food was prepared and partaken. As a verb, it is the act of slow roasting food over indirect heat. And as an adjective, it can describe both something that has been slow-roasted over indirect heat and/or something seasoned in such a way that carries the smokey flavors associated with barbecue.
In short, barbecue is a word that is truly as versatile as the dish itself, and as uniquely varied as the many pit masters, practitioners, and connoisseurs who daily sing its praises.
Now that we know from whence the word came, it is time to define.
Next week: What is barbecue?
Until then keep your wood chips dry and your basting mop wet!