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The History of American Barbecue: Early History

Updated on May 27, 2013
Barbecue in Augusta Georgia
Barbecue in Augusta Georgia
North Carolina Barbecue Company
North Carolina Barbecue Company
Southern Barbecue
Southern Barbecue | Source

Barbecue has been a worldwide natural cultural culinary development. Yet, arguably, in the United States, it has gained a prominence on its own. In fact, the practice of barbecuing has reached fanatic levels. Arguments continue as to what State should hold eminence as being the “first.” Of particular concern is the method. Which types of barbecue and what style is “true” to the culture?

Early American History

The art of barbecuing owes much to the Spaniards recording and mimicking the initial process executed by the Arawak or Taino Natives of the Caribbean Islands. The Spaniard explorers and conquerors noted the method used. They recorded how the Natives avoided rotting meat by slowly cooking the meat over smoking flames. The process also kept any insects away.

The European invaders and settlers adopted the method, spreading it over the continent. The forced arrival of African slaves to the New World and the Islands also influenced the process. It also ensured further adaptation as each group combined their cultural basis with the existing New World approach.

On the Atlantic Coast of the United States, settlers met Natives. The latest round of immigrants – both soldiers and settlers, took up the Native custom of slow cooking. In New England and Massachusetts, the early barbecues found comfort in roasting turkey and venison. Only later, with the importation of pigs and cattle, were beef and pork to become part of the menu.

The cooking method we now term barbecue changed its meat but the social purpose remained. Barbecues brought individuals together to cook and eat. Over time, necessity became replaced with a desire to get together. Barbecues became more than feasts; they were social events. Across the United States, good times, good food and good drink were one-and-the-same with the term “Barbecue.”

BBQ Southern Style

In the Northern States, barbecue was a temporary measure. It never seemed to catch on. In the Southern States, however, barbecue became an institution. Virginia quickly took to barbecuing pork. Barbecued or pulled pork became a fixture. Why the South adopted barbecued pig as its own is not the result of a single factor. Indeed, several different reasons and issues resulted in the popularity of pork over any other meat. Pigs are:

  • Low-maintenance animals. If a farmer allowed them to wander in nearby forests to root, therefore, greatly reducing the cost of feed
  • Convenience
  • Inexpensive when compared to beef cattle. This made it available nad affordable to all classes of a society
  • Adaptability to weather conditions. Pigs more than cattle may have been able to adapt to the weather conditions

In the South, barbecue invaded all the states. Virginia was just one among the many who preferred to barbecue pork. In Beaufort, Carolina, for example, William J. Grayson recorded how barbecue, hunting, drinking and clubs were inseparable during the 17th and 18th centuries. Grayson painted a picture of a frontier community where male society was hard drinking, and preferred hunting and fighting.

Barbecuing formed one aspect of these newly minted communities across the south. With the spread of settlements into Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, the barbecue slowly attained a certain kind of respectability. In fact, in Virginia, it reached the level of elegance. It became incorporated into society in general. Plantation owners and slaves held large barbecues.

In Gone with the Wind, Martha Mitchell describes the holding of a great barbecue on a plantation. In both the movie and the novel, mention is made of the big barbecue to be held at the neighboring Wilkes family’s Twelve Oakes plantation. At one point Mitchell describes the place of barbecue in her world: “They seemed never too busy to drop work for a fish fry, a hunt or a horse race, and scarcely a week went by without its barbecue or ball (78).”

Mitchell’s writing is a sentimental reflection, yet barbecues did play a prominent role in the South. Cotton plantations held at least two a year: Christmas and the Fourth of July. Another holiday including barbecues as part of its celebrations was related to the completion of harvesting. This could actually replace Fourth of July festivities.

For the plantation owners and related classes, barbecues meant elegant dresses and meetings with nearby friends and business partners. Carriages arrived with family, relatives, neighbours and associates all stylishly attired. The exchange of news of all types and gossip formed part of the event as might races, hunting and games. The extent of the celebrations and the amount of food on the barbecue would depend upon the status, wealth and residence of the host and/or hostess.

Both slaves and plantation owners looked forward to a barbecue. While high society enjoyed it in a “fashionable” way, slaves rejoiced in their own way. Louis Hughes, once a slave, later wrote,

A feast of this kind was always given to us, by Boss, on the 4th of July. The anticipation of it acted as a stimulant though the entire year. Each one looked forward to this great day of recreation with pleasure.

For slaves, this was a day without work. They could relax. Barbecues also provided them with some time together to plot. Some basic schemes for escape or revolt found their seeds over barbecue festivities.


Barbecues for both whites and blacks became social events. They marked a gathering of families. They became part of various religious and civic occasions. At a barbecue, you celebrated life in general or a specific event. In the South, barbecues slowly evolved to embrace and symbolize a community or family’s coming-together. Yet, before barbecue became synonymous with family and community, was to embrace and enjoy other aspects. The overall result – the word barbecue came to mean three things: the process of cooking the meat, the meat itself and the actual getting together or event.


Barbecue History.

History of Barbecue in the Southern States.

McWilliams, Mark. The Story Behind the Dish. Classic American Foods. Santa Barbara, Cal: Greenwood, 2012.

Moss, Robert F. Barbecue The History of an American Institution. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.

Opie, Frederick Douglass. Hog & Hominy. Soul Food from Africa to America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Reference Guide.


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