A Detailed History of the BBQ

From Australia to the USA and the Caribbean to the UK, barbecues are popular all across the world. But who exactly first thought of popping some meat onto an outdoor grill and called it ‘a barbecue’? And how did a simple process for cooking meat turn into the celebratory garden gathering we know and love so much today?
If we define ‘a barbecue’ as the process of cooking meat over a flame, then the concept has been around since early humans first discovered fire. Of course, the word ‘barbecue’ wouldn’t be used until several thousands of years later.

In the early days, barbecuing was a much slower process than that which we are used to today. Meat would be cooked slowly for several hours, usually hung on racks above a fire and this smoking action provided a useful method for preserving precious meat in the days before refrigeration.

Sources differ as to exactly where the word ‘barbecue’ comes from. One answer is that it originates from the Spanish word ‘barbacoa’ meaning a wooden frame used to cook meat. Similar words such as ‘barabicu’ meaning ‘sacred pit of fire’ used by the Taino people of the Caribbean are also likely to have contributed to the creation of our modern word ‘barbecue’.

An interesting but less plausible explanation for the word ‘barbecue’ is that it comes from the French phrase ‘barbe á queue’, meaning from ‘the beard to the tail’ conjuring up an image of a whole pig being spit roasted over a fire.

It is thought that the word ‘barbecue’ first officially entered the English language in the 17th Century when it was introduced by the British sea captain and explorer William Dampier; the first person to sail around the world three times. Dampier’s travels took him to Central America, South America, Australia and the East Indies and alongside ‘barbecue’ he is credited with bringing words such as ‘avocado’ and ‘chopsticks’ back to England after discovering them during his expeditions.

Wherever the word came from, it’s likely that in the days before modern inventions such as cookers and refrigerators, people in most countries would have had their own processes and traditions for cooking meat over a flame.

So when did the barbecue stop being simply a method for cooking food and instead turn into being the focal point for an outdoor gathering? Well the barbecue that we are familiar with today is thought to originate from the Taino people of the Caribbean and Florida during the 18th Century. The popularity of the barbecue then quickly spread from there to the American Deep South where it was seen as a convenient and effective way of cooking cheap cuts of meat. The barbecue was particularly popular for cooking pork which had become a staple food for the poverty-stricken people of the Deep South as it was plentiful and cheap. It’s often said that you can eat every part of a pig except for the oink and so killing and roasting a whole pig was always a time for celebration and the sight of a whole pig being roasted would have been quite a spectacle – just in the same way ‘hog roasts’ are today.

Rather than just roasting a pig for three or four people, it is likely that extended family, friends and neighbours would be invited round for the roasting of a pig and this is where the social aspect of a barbecue meets the cooking process.

Following the American Civil War, the popularity of the barbecue continued in the Deep South and during the early part of the 20th Century, many African Americans from the Deep South migrated further north and took their barbecue traditions with them. Throughout this time, barbecue recipes and techniques gradually spread to the rest of the USA.

It was also around this time that ‘barbecue restaurants’ began springing up in the American Deep South. These started as simple ‘take away’ restaurants, where the owner (often a farmer) would slow-cook pork for customers to take away. As the popularity for the pork grew, the owners added stools and tables to transform their shop from a take-away into a restaurant. This style of restaurant can still be found in the area today.

By the 1950s and 1960s barbecues were well established as a recreational pastime throughout most of the USA and the same traditions had been adopted in the UK, across Europe and in Australia too. 
The backyard or garden barbecue that we are familiar with today, complete with burgers, hotdogs and cold beers has grown in popularity in the UK since the 1960s. Holding a barbecue for family and friends is now an annual tradition for many people and it’s always a welcome sign that summer is here when we smell the distinctive aroma of the season’s first barbecue from a nearby garden.

If you want to get cooking yourself then take a look at our gas barbecues.