Barbecues - How They All Began

A UK summer's day, the grey sky, the rain drizzling down, and some bloke wearing an apron stands on a patio hunched over a free-standing pan of soon-to-be-extinguished briquettes, trying to stop the burgers getting too soggy. Like most stereotypes, this is almost entirely untrue (the occasional grain of truth maybe, but then it does rain a lot here). Barbecuing in the UK has gone beyond a pale and watery imitation of a cooking style imported from warmer, more exotic climes. The foods, the techniques, the cooking styles and just the range of barbecues and accessories available show what a fundamental part of our culture it has become.

The word “barbecue” is one of those linguistic oddities and stories – some probably true, some almost certainly not – abound regarding its origins. Certainly as it is used in the UK, a barbecue can refer to the event (We're having a barbecue on Saturday) or to the cooking appliance itself (We've just bought a new barbecue); in the US, it can refer to the food (We're going out for barbecue). It can also be used as a verb (I'm going to barbecue these ribs) which covers several cooking styles, including grilling and smoking; or an adjective (Try this barbecue sauce, it's delicious). It's also often abbreviated to 'Bar-B-Q', 'BBQ' or Down Under, simply the 'barbie' (not to be confused with Ken's friend). So where does this multi-functional word come from?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the word in the English language was by the British buccaneer William Dampier in 1697. This puts us in the area of the Caribbean and therefore lends credibility to the theory that both the word and the style of cooking originated with the indigenous peoples of Florida, the Bahamas and the Antilles, both of whose languages contain the word 'baribacu' which means a wooden platform used for grilling meat. The word was adopted into Spanish as 'barbacoa' and then into English as the word we know and love today.

Sounds pretty convincing, but it you'd like an odder theory (not more accurate, just odder) then how about this. Myth would have it that the barbecue actually comes from the French. The story is that French explorers/visitors/sailors/what have you saw natives in the Caribbean (there's the Caribbean again) cooking a pig whole and described it as being cooked from 'barbe à queue' or beard to tail. There is absolutely no academic merit to this theory at all but people keep telling it because it's a nice story; expect it to feature in a pub quiz near you soon.

If you don't like either of those origin stories then there is another which is probably almost as true as the French 'barbe à queue'. Moving north to the US, imagine a time when the highways featured roadhouses, establishments that provided a resting place for drinking, playing pool and, presumably grilled meat products. Legend would have it that the signs for such places read, “Bar, Beer, and Cues”, later shortened to “BBCue” and then “BBQ”. Nice story.

The fact remains that in the Caribbean and the Southern US states barbecue (wherever it came from) is enormously popular and has been there long enough that different regions have their own traditional interpretations. The methods and especially the sauces (frequently closely-guarded secrets) may differ but it's all called barbecue. In the Northern US, a barbecue is more likely simply to be an outdoor cooking occasion and apparently the South doesn't think much to that, seeing barbecue as something of an art form. Interestingly, it's this Northern version that appears to have crossed the Atlantic to Europe and the UK and in the process, the cooking process changed. In the US, barbecuing is usually a slow method of cooking, using indirect heat from the coals. It takes time and it tenderises large and potentially tough cuts of meat. In the UK on the other hand, the barbecue is a quick grilling over direct heat, the steaks, ribs and so on sitting on the grill just above the heat source. As the pastime (or, given some people's competitiveness, you could call it the sport) of barbecuing develops in the UK, more people are looking to do more than just cook burgers and sausages over briquettes and are buying more complicated equipment to explore the slower, US-style grilling and smoking approach. In fact, some gas barbecues are so 'complete' that it's like having an entire kitchen's worth of options in the back garden.

International differences aside, wherever you do it, barbecue is usually an outdoor activity (which means it's only done in good weather), it's often very social, used for parties and family gatherings, and although it encourages a relaxed approach to cooking, lots of people become completely obsessed by it. Barbecue is possibly the most popular al fresco cooking technique in the world (whichever way you do it).