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SMOKE 'EM IF YOU GOT 'EM | The Volatile History of BBQ

The argument over the beginning of American BBQ will never be answered. Just defining BBQ as a process in which bad cuts of meat are slow smoked over a wood fire means that prehistoric man started the whole thing ... there you go, end of column.

Just joking.

In this month’s column, I’ll attempt to shed a little light on this volatile subject and reveal why it’s important to understand the history in order to make good BBQ.

The very first thing we need to do is separate grilling from smoking. Although smokers may be converted into grills and grills into smokers, they are two distinctive methods of cooking.

To grill is to cook hot and fast, usually using propane or charcoal. To smoke is to use low temperature, to create smoldering wood over a long period of time. This low, long process gives the food its distinctive texture and flavor, which is only identified by the smoke ring.

Some would describe true BBQ by regions thoughout America. I want people to understand the “history” of this method of cooking that has become a staple in this country. As with most anything to do with American history its origins usually comes from outside of its borders.

On Christopher Columbus’s second voyage he sailed into the harbor of Hispaniola. There he discovered a tribe — the Taino tribe — who were drying meat on a boucan.

With the many flies attacking the meat as it was drying, some smart Taino decided to put a smoldering fire underneath the meat to keep the flies away. Hence the boucanier was born, the caretaker in charge of the boucan.

In his book “The American Language” (1919), H.L. Mencken states that the word barbeque came from the Spanish word barbacoa, which had its roots in the word boucan from the language of the Taino people, who were natives of the islands in the Caribbean. “Ba” from baba (father); “ra” from Yara (fire); “bi” from Bibi (beginning) and “cu” from Guacu (the sacred fire). Thus the phrase “Taino Barabicu” means the “Sacred Fire Pit.”

The only problem with this explanation is that Barbecue is spelled with a “c” not a “q.” So, you see the challenge in getting history correct. But let’s go with this one.

So, how did America get into BBQ?

There was this thing called the Sugar Triangular Trade whereby American ships took local produce to Cuba, then brought sugar or coffee from Cuba to St. Petersburg, then bar iron and hemp back to New England.

The use of African slaves was fundamental to growing colonial cash crops, which were exported to Europe. European goods, in turn, were used to purchase African slaves, which were then brought on the sea lane west from Africa to the Americas, the so-called “middle passage.”

A classic example would be the trade of sugar (often in its liquid form, molasses) from the Caribbean to Europe or New England, where it was distilled into rum, some of which was then used to purchase new slaves in West Africa.

And then you have Blackbeard, who plundered the southeast coast of America, originating from the Caribbean.

See how history comes together?

One of the things pirates were not, was farmers. So, during they’re travels they would release captured piggies throughout the land, knowing that when they returned there would be dinner available, waiting to be smoked in the Taino way, or something close.

So, where did sauce come from?

In BBQ, a traditional sauce is a liquid served on or with in preparing smoked foods. Sauces are not consumed by themselves; they add flavor, moisture, and visual appeal to any dish.

(Cover shoe leather with a sweet, thick sauce and even it would taste good. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to make, and used on so much crappy BBQ.)

Here’s a thought for why the original sauces were thin, the vinegar and tomato helped to fight scurvy.

I would encourage everyone to use history to build your own recipes. Keep them simple, uncomplicated and remembering less is best. Put yourself in the shoes of those who have gone before and try to feel the way they would have felt when preparing a delicious slow smoked meal.

PATRICK MOMANY is the owner/operator of Tatu BBQ, located at 11133 NE Maine Ave. in Kingston, also a chef for wounded troops and all-around boucanier extraordinaire.

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