When the first Spanish explorers arrived in the new world they found the indigenous people of the Caribbean preserving meats in the sun. This is an age old and almost completely universal method. The chief problem with doing this is that the meats spoil and become infested with bugs. To drive the bugs away the natives would built small, smoky fires and place the meat on racks over the fires. The smoke would keep the insects at bay and help in the preserving of the meat.
Tradition tells us that this is the origin of Barbecue, both in process and in name. The natives of the West Indies had a word for this process, "barbacoa". It is generally believed that this is the origin of our modern word Barbecue.
After the Civil War, many freedmen opened their own barbecue joints out of the back of their houses or on the side of the road. It was also after the Civil War when barbecue moved outside of the South to places like Kansas City and Whites experimented with being pitmasters.
In 1867 the first major cattle drive went up the Chisholm Trail from Texas, beginning the emerging Texas cattle industry. The popularity of beef skyrocketed as huge ranches sprang up. These were range-fed tough Longhorns that required long and low cooking, usually as whole carcasses, often over trenches filled with coals, and with meat like that, there was some basting and sauce-dipping going on. Texas barbecue was born.
Eventually the saplings used to hold the meat over the open pits in the ground were replaced by metal gridirons, and before long the pits were built with stones or bricks above ground. In 1897, Ellsworth Zwoyer patented the charcoal briquette. The briquette really took off when, in the 1920s, Henry Ford, in collaboration with Thomas Edison and EB Kingsford, began commercial manufacturing by making them from sawdust and wood scraps from Ford's auto plants.
Barbecue also has strong ties to African American culture. Because of the long, slow cooking process inexpensive cuts of meat could be used, making it a cost-effective way to put meat on the table. Poor black communities in the South embraced barbecue as an affordable way to cook and enjoy meat, leading it to become one of several core soul food dishes. When blacks migrated North in the early 1900′s, they brought barbecue with them. By the mid-century, barbecue restaurants run by black cooks and their families had cropped up in cities across the United States.
Cooking barbecue is a point of pride for many Americans. Barbecue contests that started during the 1980’s now play host to crowds of over 100,000 people. Each state has it’s own signature style of barbecue, differing from the type of meat used, to the sauce (or lack of sauce), the side dishes, and even the type of wood it’s cooked over. South Carolina is known for its pork barbecue with a mustard based sauce; in Kansas City, beef brisket or sliced turkey is cooked over hickory, oak or pecan wood and covered with a sweet, tomato-based sauce; in Texas, beef is cooked “Cowboy Style” over open mesquite fires and often served without sauce; in Memphis, you’ll find pork ribs and pulled pork sandwiches covered in thick, sweet molasses barbecue sauce.
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