Throughout the year, millions of Americans huddle around outdoor pits, ovens and grills to slowly cook themselves meaty dishes dusted in special rubs or slathered in sauce. Barbecue is about as red, white and blue as American cuisine gets and the only real question is how to save room for seconds. And, with the popularity of barbecue on the rise as a result of numerous TV programs, well-publicized and attended contests and its power to bring people together, it's no wonder that it is also quickly becoming a growing international food trend.
But, let's first get one thing straight: merely throwing meat on a grill is not barbecue, at least not in the traditional Southern sense. While novices (and Yankees) may believe that anything covered in KC Masterpiece counts as barbecue, real authentic BBQ is cooked over indirect heat usually over a spilt wood fire for a really long time (sometimes for as many as 18 hours). The resulting flavor is a combination of smoke, meat juices, fat and whatever spices or rubs have been added.
No one is really sure where the term barbecue originated. The conventional wisdom is that the Spanish, upon landing in the Caribbean, used the word barbacoa to refer to the natives' method of slow-cooking meat over a wooden platform. By the 19th century, the culinary technique was well established in the American South, and because pigs were prevalent in the region, pork became the primary meat at barbecues. Corn bread emerged as the side dish of choice, owing largely to the fact that in humid Southern climates, corn grew better than wheat (which was prone to fungal infections). Barbecue allowed an abundance of food to be cooked at once and quickly became the go-to menu item for large gatherings like church festivals and neighborhood picnics.
Barbecue varies by region, with the four main styles named after their place of origin: Memphis, Tenn.; North Carolina; Kansas City; and Texas. Memphis is renowned for pulled pork shoulder doused in sweet tomato-based sauce (eaten on its own or as a sandwich). North Carolina smokes the whole hog in a vinegar-based sauce. Kansas City natives prefer ribs cooked in a dry rub, and Texans ... well, Texans dig beef. Eastern Texas' relative proximity to Tennessee puts it in the pulled-pork camp, but in the western segment of the Lone Star State, you're likely to find mesquite-grilled "cowboy-style" brisket.
Because barbecue doesn't require expensive cuts of meat why bother when you're just going to slather it in sauce and cook it 'til it falls off the bone? It became a dietary staple for impoverished southerners, who frequently paired it with vegetables like fried okra and sweet potatoes. The first half of the 20th century saw a mass migration of African Americans from the rural South to Northern cities, and as they moved, they took their recipes with them. By the 1950s, African American-owned barbecue joints had sprouted in nearly every city in America. Along with fried chicken, corn bread and hush puppies, barbecue came to be known as a "soul food" dish. To this day, there is a strong connection between the cuisine and the African American community.
Other countries barbecue in their own style. Korean barbecue features thin slices of beef or pork cooked and served with rice. Argentina has asado, or marinade-free meat cooked in a smokeless pit. And of course, there's Mongolian barbecue, which is neither barbecue nor of Mongolian origin, but rather a type of stir-fry recently invented in Taiwan. But true barbecue is distinctly American. So, throw some meat in the cooker and smoke yourself a true American classic. Patriotism never tasted so delicious.