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Much Ado About BBQ

Since prehistoric times humans from all over the world have been cooking meats over fire. In the United States, we generally refer to outdoor cooking over a charcoal or wood fire as barbecue. The word barbecue has multiple meanings: It can be a style of cooking meat over an open fire, a structure or framework for cooking, a food, a flavor and an outdoor social gathering.

Man of the house barbecues steaks over open grill in his backyard. 1942. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USF34-072730-D (b&w film neg.); Call No.: LC-USF34- 072730-D [P&P] Marriage of George Washington. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-60641 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: PRES FILE - Washington--Courtship & Marriage [item] [P&P]

There are regional distinctions in the ways Americans barbecue. What brings all these types of barbecue styles together is the process of slow-cooking the meat over low heat.

The particulars of barbecue vary widely. Preferred methods range from open to closed pits, the meat can be pork (in the East) or beef (in the West), sauce can be wet or dry (and then it’s a rub), and the fuel can be one of many varieties of wood or  it can be charcoal.

The United States has a long tradition of barbecues as a form of social gathering. In fact, George Washington wrote in his diaries about the many “barbicue” [sic] he attended or hosted.

Buccaneers – that is, pirates – originally cooked and sold barbecue along seaports of the Americas. Their name is derived from “boucan,” the native South American word for the wooden framework in which meat was roasted or smoked over an open fire. “Buccaneers” originally meant someone who dries and smokes flesh on a boucan. The Library holds the first edition of one of the most important books about pirates ever written. “Buccaneers of America” gives the account of such infamous men as Henry Morgan, François Lolonois, Pierre le Grand and Bartholomew Portugues.

In 1793, following the ceremonial laying of the United States Capitol cornerstone, a 500-pound ox was barbecued.

In 1830, Skilton Dennis opened the first commercial barbecue business in the United States in Ayden, N.C. His many descendants still carry on the tradition in Ayden.

If you want to learn more about the history of barbecue, you can use this guide to BBQ History from the Science, Technology and Business Division for a list of books, articles and websites on the topic.

For a more inclusive exploration of barbecue, you might wish to watch a lecture on “Barbecue: History of the World’s Oldest Culinary Art” presented at the Library in 2005 by barbecue aficionado Steve Raichlen.