The History of Barbecue-ing in America

With Memorial Day just passed, Fourth of July right around the corner and Labor Day not far behind the start of the summer season is the perfect time to take a closer look at how the most American cooking style came to be. We’re talking barbecue!

It’s no secret that at TimberTown Austin we’re big fans of grilling, smoking and searing just about everything. Cooking over an open flame has been a right of passage for men since time began, it seems like. Today there’s still nothing better than relaxing out on the deck, firing up the Kamado Joe Grill and then sinking you teeth into moist, smoky meat that you cooked yourself.

But why is grilling such a popular cooking style, and how is it that BBQ became synonymous with American cuisine? Let’s take a look!

BBQ Grilling Traditions

The Beginning of Barbecue

The first grilling happened over pits that were dug into the ground, but it soon became much more sophisticated. In addition to creating frames that could be positioned over a fire, people developed barbecue tools like the spit to cook meats, veggies and bread so that they would absorb the smoke without burning or putting out the fire. Once the Iron Age hit the grilling apparatuses were upgraded to include gridirons that were similar to the grates that are used today. The Europeans took things up a notch with rotating devices and eventually full-on smoke houses.

The origin of the term barbecue isn’t known for sure, but an educated guess was made that it most likely came from barbacoa, a word coined by the Spaniards in the early 1500s to describe the Caribbean style of slow cooking meat over a wood frame above an open flame.

The Rise of Barbecue in the American South

It was the southern states that first adopted and quickly popularized barbecuing. In the 1800s this style of cooking leant itself well in the south because there was an abundance of pork that could be barbecued in a variety of ways, large quantities of food could be cooked at once and cheaper cuts of all sorts of meat could be used and still end up tasting delicious. This adoption was further supported in Texas and Tennessee by the many German immigrants who came from a country with a history of barbecuing pork and sausage.

If you travel to the states of Texas, Tennessee or the Carolinas today there’s a good chance you can catch a barbecue cook-off. While true BBQ fans know that meat should never be drowned in sauce, this condiment is another source of pride for the cook. In Virginia and North Carolina vinegar was popular so early barbecuers naturally incorporated it into their sauce. In South Carolina where the German population was strong a mustard based sauce was developed. Kansas is known for its ketchup-based sauce while Texans usually slather a slightly sweet, peppery sauce that’s infused with liquid smoke.

Pre-Civil War slaves did most of the grilling and barbecuing, especially for big events like weddings and holidays. Everyone ate from the barbecue that was created, thankfully that included the hard working cooks who discovered how to make the tougher, less desirable cuts more juicy through slow cooking.

The Migration of the Barbecue Craze

After the Civil War many freed men saw BBQ as the perfect way to strike out on their own. All along the south African American men opened barbecue stands and they quickly gained in popularity to the point that barbecue became an everyday food.

African Americans that moved from the rural south to the north in the 1900s brought with them many delicious barbecue recipes and techniques they learned from their predecessors. African American-owned BBQ joints sprang up all over the place and barbecue began to be synonymous with soul food.

Modern Day Barbecuing

So how is it that men do the majority of grilling today? In a word – suburbia. In the 1950’s suburbs featuring homes with sizable backyards began to pop up all over the country. Men started spending more leisure time at home and in the neighborhood, and the barbecue pit became a communal space just like it was when man first learned how to cook with fire.

In the 1960s consumer grills hit the market and made at-home barbecuing possible for many more people. These included wood, coal and gas grills that fired up quickly to make the process more convenient for novice cooks. The revolution continued into the 1980s with the development of tools that precision-controlled temperatures and smoke. Then barbecue connoisseurs like the creators of Kamado Joe Grills looked back to early cooking technology to harness the benefits ceramic structures that give outdoor chefs more control and options.

BBQ Grilling Traditions

Today the barbecuing tradition is as strong as ever in America, and men around the country take pride in their personalized recipes. So what are you waiting for? Get grilling!

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