The origin of the word barbecue is as foggy as the style of cooking itself seems to be. Everybody has a different take on just what barbeque is or is not. Heck, we can’t even agree on how to spell the word. Is it barbecue, as I’ve used here? Or is it, barbeque, with a Q? I can’t really believe that some people will quibble, and tell us, no, it’s bar-b-que or bar-b-cue, with slashes. Who cares? Some barbeque devotees do, I’m sure. But the origin of the word itself is as unclear as the spelling.
Where Does the Word Barbecue Come From?
Studying barbecue etymology is not something I would want to make a career. As with many such beloved cooking techniques, there are too many emotions involved for even professionals to find a distinct historical origin for this term. There are three main claims as to which language the word came from: French, English, and Spanish. Actually, make that four. I’ll get to that. Let’s start with the first three.
To understand the French claim, you first have to know that the first barbeques were fire pits over which whole pigs were roasted. In South Carolina, pigs were plentiful but there was not a lot of salt, so curing wasn’t a good option. If you scored a pig, you needed to cook the whole thing and eat it as quickly as possible, lest it go to waste. Add some vinegar and peppers to the mix and you woudl get a little better shelf life plus some vitamin C. How about a little mustard as well? They added that at some point, too. The South Carolina barbecue was born. But how was the word born? Well, one theory is that it came from the French words barbe à queue which translate loosely into “from beard to tail.” So, you get it, the whole pig from his beard to his tail. I actually don’t buy this one at all.
I’m a Southerner too, so don’t jump on me about South Carolina being the origin of the barbeque. I’m just telling the story. Since my home state never claimed to have invented it, though, it’s not my fight. We invented the blues, therefore we’ve done enough.
Those who subscribe to the above theory say that it refers to the practice of roasting the whole pig, which makes sense. The French had little influence on the region compared to the Spanish, however, and it was the Spanish who brought the pigs in the first place, so most subscribe to a Spanish origin.
So, the Spanish word claimed to be the origin is said to have actually come from the Carribbean Taino Indians, who cooked on high wooden racks above burning wood. They called these racks barbacoas. It’s claimed that Columbus brought this back to Spain and the Spaniards eventually brought pigs to Florida which multiplied throughout the Southeast, where they were hunted both for meat and out of the practical need to keep down the populations, as feral pigs are a most destructive tribe.
According to H.L. Mencken, the original Taino word was boucan, which doesn’t really sound all that close to barbacoa or barbeque. However, Smoky Hale has said in an article that Peter Guanikeyu Torres, who was president and council chief of the Taino Indigenous Nation of the Carribean and Florida, traced the word more directly to the Taino word barabicu which means the sacred fire pit. The barabicu suggestion certainly sounds credible, and although, as I said, the actual origin is still clouded, this is the most credible connection I have personally found. Others, certainly, may exist. 1 2
Unfortunately, I cannot put this post to bed without mentioning another “theory” by a literary scholar who claims some very weird things about American barbeque: Andrew Warnes. In his book Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America’s First Food, he claims that none of this is true and that barbecue is an invented tradition and the word’s origin owes more to the word barbaric, because, of course, words with similar sounds in them cannot be a coincidence.
Perhaps Warnes, who is from London, should have actually spent time in the place and experienced the culture. The biggest clue is obvious: Warnes seems to think that Americans in general hold barbecue in low esteem. This is certainly not true! Most of the ideas in this book take the word s-t-r-e-t-c-h to new lengths! Barbecue and barbarian sound alike not by coincidence, he says. The fact that there were native words that sounded almost exactly like barbecue should be ignored, according to him.
He takes a few isolated readings and images and stretches them beyond credibility to back up his thesis that barbecue is an ‘invented’ and racist tradition. Ken Albala, in a review of the book published by the website of Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, says that Warnes even goes so far to use Thomas Jefferson as a source for what he does NOT say. I.E. since Jefferson failed to mention barbecue in some writing, that means he must not have wanted anything to do with it.
He continually rests his assertions on “proximity proves association.” That is, if barbecue appears near any image or comment that has anything to do with racism, it must be a racist tradition. Albala describes his reliance on, and complete misreading of “The Barbacue Feast: Or, the Three Pigs of Peckham” by Edward Ward, which was published in 1707 and contains the first written mention of the word barbecue as we know it (as far as I’m aware). The author’s prejudice comes to the forefront right at the beginning of the book in the introduction, however, when he says that “those of more sophisticated tastes should now take a deep breath and hold their noses or just look away as we delve into into the history of this most American food.”
Warnes clearly has an audience in mind, and it is not those of us that he would obviously see as low-class and vulgar Americans. He actually seems to think that barbecue is not a recognized and respected part of American food. In other words, he is completely ignorant of the country he is writing about. See What does barbecue tell us about race? by Ken Albala for a better discussion of this book and its shortcomings. 3 4 5
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- Reinhardt, Julie. She-smoke: A Backyard Barbecue Book. Berkeley, CA: Seal, 2009.
- Worgul, Doug, and Shifra Stein. The Grand Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities and Technique of Kansas City Barbecue. Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star, 2001.
- Warnes, Andrew. Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America’s First Food. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2008.
- Albala, Ken. “What Does Barbecue Tell Us about Race?” Common-Place. Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Apr. 2011. Web. 01 July 2013
- Walsh, Robb, and O. Rufus Lovett. Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey. Austin: University of Texas, 2013.