What Does Barbecue Mean? A Word with Many Origin Stories


"One of Warnes' more convincing arguments is that barbecue is an invented word and an invented tradition, drawing from many different backgrounds."

James Howell of the Skylight Inn shovels live wood coals into the pit. James Boo

I'll be honest: As I walked from tent to tent at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party, this year asking various cooks for their definitions of barbecue, I thought I'd come away with more controversial answers.

I was happy to see barbecue recognized as the culinary glue that binds traditions from across the United States. Still, the basic response of "low and slow" seemed to preempt the semantic shouting contests that tend to go hand in hoof with barbecue culture. For every word that celebrates the diversity of barbecue,. it seems like a bible's worth of conjecture and contention has been delivered on its "true" meaning

The Scattered Roots of "Bar-B-Que"

Disagreements over the definition of barbecue cut to the very bone of the word itself. At the fabled Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, one of few barbecue establishments left in the state that still cook whole hogs over wood coals, co-owner Jeff Jones summons the French phrase "de la barbe a la queue" ("from beard to tail") as proof that barbecue can only be defined as a form of whole hog cooking.

I'm totally on board with Jones if it results in more cooks producing whole hog 'cue as delicious as the Skylight Inn's; however, I've seen this explanation dismissed time and again by scholars and journalists who note a lack of evidence to prove the migration of this phrase from France to the Americas.

"there are as many origin stories for barbecue as there are spellings of the word on neon signs."

As it turns out, there are as many origin stories for barbecue as there are spellings of the word on neon signs. These explanations range from a linguistic attempt to connect barbecue to boucan (also French) to a tall tale tracing barbecue to a Texas rancher who happened to brand the initials B.Q. on his livestock.

And these are stories set on the origin of American barbecue—let's not forget the fact that civilizations throughout history have engaged in the practice of cooking meat over coals or fire (though I doubt they've engaged in the practice of pig-themed musical competition).

Barbacoa: Barbecue's Grammatical Ancestor

General consensus among academics links "barbecue" to barbacoa, specifically to the mention of barbacoa in English and Spanish texts dating as far back as 1526. In 2008's Savage Barbecue, a fascinating if overreaching study of American barbecue's etymological history, author Andrew Warnes uses a smokestack of evidence to contend that even this word cannot be traced to a single country or culture.

"Today, most Americans probably associate barbacoa with a Chipotle burrito."

According to Warnes, "the most we can say is that, in a number of Amerindian languages before colonial settlement, barbacoa seems to have been an objective noun" referring to a wooden structure used to raise objects above the ground. Today, most Americans probably associate barbacoa with a Chipotle burrito.

The fact that even barbacoa can't be traced with certainty to a single culture or definition is significant for the meaning of barbecue today. One of Warnes' more convincing arguments is that barbecue is an invented word and an invented tradition, drawing from many different backgrounds to suit the needs of its writer. Whereas regional words like "pop" and "hoagie" offer different ways to name the same basic thing, barbecue operates in reverse, imposing a single word onto centuries of regional culinary history.

More American Than Apple Pie?

"It's like trying to define America."

The result is one of those words that acts as a personal Rorschach test—and I'm not just referring to debates over types of meat and cooking techniques. Trying to define barbecue is like trying to define patriotism. It's like trying to define America.

Where one 'cue lover sees a timeless tradition, another might see volumes of racial and colonial history. Another might see a preservation of the family line. Yet another might see the porky proof of Austrian economic philosophy. Heated debates over who has the truest 'cue may be all in good fun, but there is an undeniable weight to any word that represents such a basic piece of American culture.

The low and slow development of American barbecue's geographic variation confirms that its meaning remains in the eye of the engorger. The more recent adoption of barbecue to describe the simple act of grilling in one's backyard is a testament to the word's ongoing evolution. Even in North Carolina, where calling a backyard burger "barbecue" could earn you a free lecture at whole hog university, new waves of immigration are expanding the boundaries of the word and its edible manifestations.

When it comes to food, tradition moves. And on the terms of barbecue, that movement comes down to the wide-ranging roots of the American story.