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The History of American Barbecue (As We Know It)

It's no secret that Americans are passionate about their barbecue. In fact, these days, barbecue restaurants can quickly gain somewhat of a cult following — even becoming destination spots for travelers in search of the perfect bite of brisket.

May 21, 2019

However, depending on what state you’re in, barbecue can mean different things to different people. It’s even often thought of as a catchall term for “grilling out,” with holidays like the Fourth of July and Memorial Day becoming almost synonymous with outdoor “barbecues.” But for the purposes of this history lesson, let’s get one thing straight: when we say barbecue, we mean cooking meat over indirect heat — and doing it low and slow.

Whether you’re a devoted consumer of eastern-style barbecue with a vinegar-based sauce or prefer the tomato-based sauce associated with western-style, whether you’re a pork purist or beef enthusiast, all meat lovers can agree: barbecue is a historic staple of our country. But where, exactly, did this flavorful method of meat preparation originate? To investigate, we did some research on barbecue’s roots.

Barbecue: An Origin Story

The beginnings of barbecue in America can be traced all the way back to indigenous tribes. Believed to have originated as a Caribbean cooking style, the process of barbecuing that we know and love today was brought north by Spanish conquistadors following Christopher Columbus. Reports suggest that, at the time, this style of cooking was referred to as “barbacoa.” One of the earliest mentions of pork barbecue being enjoyed in America is from 1540, when Hernando DeSoto and his men encountered the Chickasaw tribe in present-day Tupelo, Mississippi. From there, the technique spread north to Virginia.  

The process of barbecuing became especially popular in pre-Civil war years due to the ease and economic availability of pork. Unlike cows, pigs could forage on their own and didn’t require as much maintenance feeding for farmers. However, this did lead to leaner hogs — and slow cooking was the perfect solution to tenderize meat. Similarly, adding sauce to meat originated in the British colonies as a means of basting to preserve juiciness.

Really, it should come as no surprise that the practice of smoking meat caught on throughout the southern and western parts of the country. Can you imagine eating a plate of barbecue for the first time and not wanting to tell everyone you know about it?

The Right Cut

Of course, if you’ve had really good barbecue, chances are you’ve also had…not-so-good barbecue. That’s because the right cut can make all the difference. And, look, we know we got all “barbecue snobby” when we mentioned earlier that true barbecuing requires low and slow indirect heat, but let’s be honest: you don’t need a pit or a smoker to turn out a flavorful feast this Memorial Day. With the highest quality beef and pork available for overnight shipping, you can easily grill up some delicious, smoky meat that will make any pitmaster proud.

Plus, you have our express permission to wow your cookout guests with everything you just learned about the history of barbecue in America. So go forth and grill this weekend — it’s the American way!

But before you do... Be sure to load up on high-quality cuts from yours truly.

You've always got a seat at our table.

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