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The Origins of Barbecue, Part I

Hominids first discovered live fire cooking about 1.5 million years ago, predating the modern human genome. The first organisms on this planet to cook their food were homo erectus, a recent ancestor of humans. Their method of cooking primarily consisted of placing food directly into live flames until it was no longer raw. While this approach is technically effective at killing pathogens (not that homo erectus had such concerns in mind), it doesn’t do much for flavor or texture. Through experimentation, these early pitmasters progressed from full combustion fires to cooking over the gentler, more even heat of embers and coals. Early cooking fires were often dug into the ground and covered with reeds or branches upon which meat could be grilled. Eventually, pitmasters learned to better control their cooking by building spits upon which food could be hung or skewered, elevated over the fire for an indirect heat that allowed for more finesse. Advancements in ceramics, and later in metalworking, lead to new technologies for constructing cooking vessels that could hold liquids while withstanding high temperatures. This gave early cooks the opportunity to braise tough cuts of meat to improve their tenderness. Another development of early metalworking was the gridiron, a precursor to the grill. Metal gridirons were in widespread use in the Mediterranean region at least 2,000 years ago.

The roots of low-and-slow cooking are found not around the Mediterranean, however, but in the ancient societies of east and southeast Asia. The first cooking implements to utilize the principles familiar to modern barbecue were known as “tandoori” or “kamados” - large earthenware urns that were filled with hot coals over which meat could be roasted by indirect heat over an extended period of time. Tandoori is thought to have emerged around present-day Rajasthan, India. It quickly spread to what is now China and Japan as the Xia and Yayoi incorporated low-and-slow live fire cooking techniques into their culinary traditions. In India, tandoori is still widely enjoyed to this day. Then as now, tandoori is often accompanied by citrus juices or tangy yogurt rather than what Americans would consider “barbecue sauce”, but the effect of these accompaniments is the same - to balance the savoriness of the smoked meat with sweet and sour flavors, enhancing the overall experience of the meal. Flatbreads are traditionally served alongside tandoori, and it is thought that bread, not meat, was the first food cooked over these early barbecues.

Around the first century A.D., another popular style of live fire cooking emerged in east Asia. Korean bulgogi, a cousin of barbecue, utilizes more direct heat than the low-and-slow methods of smoking. Bulgogi uses similar cuts of meat with lots of tough connective tissue and collagen, but instead of breaking them down with low heat and convection, bulgogi is marinated in fruit juices such as pear, or sometimes kiwi or pineapple. These fruits have enzymes that tenderize meat prior to cooking, and the residual liquid from the marinade creates a sweet and savory glaze as the sugars caramelize on the surface of the meat. Instead of tangy sauces, citrus juices, or yogurt, bulgogi is most often accompanied by pickled vegetables as a refreshing way to balance the rich umami flavors. Not quite grilling, not quite barbecue, bulgogi pioneered many techniques that can be broadly applied to a variety of live fire cooking styles, and remains one of Korea’s most popular dishes around the world today.

On the other side of the world, native peoples in North and South America developed their own versions of low-and-slow live fire cooking independently from the Asian cultures of antiquity. A style of live-fire cooking known as “barabicu” emerged among the Taíno Arawak people around present-day Barbados. No one knows how long ago the Taíno invented barabicu, and studies around the history of this ancient culture are still ongoing, but as early as 2,500 years ago the Taíno are believed to have set out from the northeastern coast of South America, slowly colonizing the islands of the Caribbean. Portuguese explorers who stumbled upon the first Taíno-inhabited island in the 1400s referred to it as “Barbados”, meaning “the bearded ones”, because of the island’s many bearded fig trees. Taíno barabicu was cooked over the branches of these fig trees. Young green wood was preferred over mature, cured logs because the branches were more fire resistant, burned at a lower temperature, and produced more smoke. The goal of Taíno barabicu was primarily preservation, and the marinating and cooking techniques they employed allowed the smoked meat to be stored for an exceptionally long time.

Arawak culture dominated in the Caribbean during the age of European colonization, and variations of early barbecue could be found as far north as Florida, where the Timucan people of central Florida adopted similar techniques to their Arawak neighbors. Spanish explorers who encountered the Timucan and Arawak took note of these techniques and interpreted the native term for this style of cooking as “barbacoa”. Originally the term referred not to the process by which the meat was prepared, but rather to describe the wood and reed structures utilized by the Timucan to elevate the food above the fires during cooking. Initially used to describe all manner of wooden and reed structures from construction to home furnishings, but over time, “barbacoa” became closely associated with outdoor grills used to smoke meats with indirect heat at low temperatures. Timucan barbacoa often included wild game, usually dressed with citrus and chiles both for preservation and flavor. This combination is still the basis of modern Latin American barbacoa, American barbecue’s closest relative. In the early 1500s, Ponce de León brought pork to La Florida, followed by cattle in 1521. Over the next few centuries, barbacoa and Spanish cuisine became increasingly intertwined in the region among both the native and European populations.

Though the Timucan and Taíno Arawak had different cultures and traditions, their approaches to live fire cooking bore many similarities. Both styles of barbacoa utilized sophisticated grill-like structures to control the proximity of meat to flame, and the focus was always on preservation first and foremost. Smoke, salt, citrus, and chiles all have bactericidal properties that significantly improve the stability and shelf life of meat that would otherwise spoil within a day or two. As a result of these properties, and the prevalence of these ingredients in the diets of both cultures, early barbecue sauces and marinades in the Americas made prominent use of these ingredients. Other common staples of both Taíno and Timucan diets included fish and reptiles, such as iguanas and alligators, all of which frequently found their way onto early barbacoa grills. Many non-meat staples of both Timucan and Taíno diets are still frequently served as side dishes with modern American barbecue, including corn, beans, sweet potatoes, and squash.

As barbacoa made its way to Mexico, it took a slight departure from American BBQ as pitmasters eschewed the reed structures of the Taíno and Timucan for pits in the ground. Mexican barbacoa traditionally involves wrapping meats in agave leaves, then slow roasting via indirect heat. In Texcoco, the region most associated with barbacoa, one classic version of barbacoa involves pit roasting a whole cow head. The smoked beef cheeks, also known as cabeza, are a popular topping for tacos. Unlike most other early versions of barbecue, Mexican barbacoa has traditionally involved rich salsas and moles, precursors to contemporary barbecue sauce. Birria, a close cousin of barbacoa, involves slow cooking a piece of meat over live fire, then finishing it in a savory braise and serving with the retained liquids like a stew. Goat is the traditional protein associated with birria; in fact, goat and mutton rival the popularity of beef in Mexican barbacoa. Pork is much less common than in American barbecue, but in the Yucatan region, a version of whole hog barbecue known as “cochinita pibil,” from the Spanish word for a baby pig (cochinita) and the Yucatec Mayan word for a cooking pit (piib), is renowned as one of the most classic dishes in Mexican cuisine. At Pit Fiend Barbecue, we take inspiration from cochinita pibil for our vegan pulled jackfruit, which is prepared similar to the traditional pork version with an achiote and lime juice marinade.

The ubiquity of low-and-slow live fire cooking can be seen in the independent development of many similar cooking styles around the world, either drawing inspiration from previous forms, or simultaneously arriving at similar discoveries. Similar to cochinita pibil, Hawaiian kālua (the primary fare of luaus) also involves slow roasting a whole suckling pig in an underground oven, or “imu”. The primary difference between cochinita pibil and kālua is in the seasoning applied. While the Yucatan version is seasoned with annato chiles and lime juice, its Hawaiian form is more simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and sometimes cooked with cabbage. Cochinita pibil is wrapped in agave leaves, the same plant used to produce mezcal and tequila. Kālua, on the other hand, is wrapped in banana leaves to impart a similarly earthy flavor. Peruvian “pachamancha”, or “earth pot”, involves wrapping a variety of meats in chinco herbs before roasting in an oven of hot stones. The indirect heat produced by these stone ovens resembles many of the barbecue pits associated with late 19th and early 20th century American barbecue pits. Unlike cochinita pibil or kālua, pachamancha is not limited to pork. Any one of a variety of meats, from llama to guinea pig, may be subjected to the low-and-slow treatment. Regardless of region or culture, the benefits of indirect heat and the naturally preservative process of smoking have been employed by most societies throughout human history.

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