Barbecue: Relax, it’s not really French
By Eric Berg, Meat-animal Scientist, North Dakota State University
Another July 4th has passed and we are in the middle of “grilling season”. It is the season of barbecue cook-offs and other assorted celebrations that include outdoor roasting of meat. With all this attention to the BBQ, I started wondering; what is the origin of this cooking method and the word itself. I had always thought that both the word and the method had come from a French origin. So I did some digging. Turns out the origin of the word remains a point of debate and (as with many things) the French claim the origin of not only the word itself, but the cooking style.
According to one source, French pirates who sailed the French West Indies were called “Boucaniers” (the prequel to our Colonial Buccaneers). Seems the root word for Boucanier, or “Bouc”, is French for male goat and these swashbucklers got the name from their favorite meal. They would impale the goat carcass “de la barbe au cul” which loosely translates to “from beard to butt”. Since the “l” in ‘cul’ is silent in the French tongue and since the followers of this method of cooking had a hard time understanding the pirates, the word barbecue was passed on.
So you say you can’t quite stomach the fact that a French Captain Jack Sparrow invented one of the most sacred rituals of American summer-time? Then maybe you would prefer this origin. Harold McGee (in his book On Food and Cooking) links the word and cooking style to the West Indies, but not to French pirates. He states the word comes from the Spanish barbicoa which is a Taino word referring to a “framework of green sticks suspended on corner posts” where fish and meat are cooked over an open fire of coals. Just like your Weber grill, both the height and fire were adjustable to allow fast or slow cooking. From barbicoa to barbecue.
But wait gentle reader, there is more. Turns out, there were two Taino words that may have sparked the origination. This one may hit closer to home for some of you out there. The Taino word for “sacred fire pit” is barabicu. So there you go. Barbecue IS a spiritual ritual.
Okay. Let’s review. American BBQ originated with a pre-Columbian indigenous Amerindian inhabitant of the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles islands (which include Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica). Note to reader: the former was obtained from the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia since I didn’t know what a Taino was. Now back to our summary. The BBQ process was then stolen by the French (Okay; French pirates) who washed up on America’s Southern shores where Southern Barbecue was born! Originating with the whole hog because it was inexpensive and available to the masses, the post civil war Southern Barbecue came to be known as a central point of celebration and community fellowship.
The origins of the word and the cooking style have stayed loyal to their base. The next time you host your community ritual of cooked meat you will be able to tell the tale of barbecue’s origin. Be sure you tell it in a Pirates brogue. Yo ho ho!