The Origins of Barbecue, Part II
During the last few centuries, as colonization and globalization have increasingly blurred the lines between the regional culinary traditions of agrarian societies, a uniquely American version of low-and-slow live fire cooking has emerged in the United States. The culinary tradition of American barbecue is internationally regarded as our nation’s most authentic and original culinary tradition. But how original is it? The early influences of Timucan and Taíno Arawak “barbacoa” on modern barbecue cannot be understated, and the parallel development of similar live-fire cooking styles in other regions suggest an almost universal propensity towards smoked and grilled meats. Perhaps the most American elements of “barbecue” are our willingness to assimilate other cultures’ traditions into our own, and our reluctance to credit many of the early adopters of time-honored techniques and traditions that have significantly shaped the face of modern barbecue.
European settlers in the colonial period of United States history brought their own cooking traditions to the “New World,” which gradually became integrated with the techniques and ingredients popular among native populations. In continental Europe and the British Isles, low-and-slow cooking was practiced widely throughout the middle ages in the form of “rotisserie,” spit roasting meats over an open flame. In Tudor England, animal-operated rotisseries, or “smokejacks”, were typically powered by dogs, donkeys, and other mid-sized domesticated animals. But increasingly from the 13th century onward, mechanical rotisseries became commonplace across Europe. Rotisserie chicken, one of the oldest and most popular dishes in the French culinary tradition, emerged during this period. While rotisserie and barbecue are considered distinct styles of live-fire cooking, the influence of European rotisserie can be seen in American barbecue today. The same principles of low-and-slow cooking, allowing for even rendering of fat and breakdown of collagen, can be observed in the modern rotisserie smoker designs favored by many larger-scale barbecue operations. The first modern rotisserie smoker was invented in Mesquite, Texas in 1968, and can now be found in restaurants across the United States.
In addition to the rotisserie model for low-and-slow live-fire cooking, European cuisine arguably provided the most important innovations to barbecue sauce. In North and South Carolina, both among the thirteen original colonies, two distinct variations have emerged from European traditions. Vinegar was already a popular condiment in British cuisine
prior to the colonization of North America, and its influence can be seen today in the vinegar-based hot pepper sauces of Eastern North Carolina. Pit
Fiend Barbecue’s Aboleth sauce, a pepper-vinegar infusion reminiscent of early barbecue sauces, is a descendant of this early British culinary tradition. In colonial South Carolina, British colonizers welcomed German immigrants in record numbers, particularly in the area around Lexington. While the original British colonizers favored vinegar, German colonizers preferred hot mustard with their meats. This made its way into the barbecue traditions of the region, spawning the mustard-based Carolina Gold sauce. The Gold Dragon sauce at Pit Fiend is based on this tradition, combining hot yellow mustard with the sweetness of whiskey barrel-aged honey.
German, Czech, and Russian immigrants also played a major role in the rise of barbecue. Along with other Central and Eastern European immigrants, German and Czech Americans helped popularize the deli-style counter service model popular at many modern American grocery stores and bodegas, not to mention the quintessential “first come, first served” model of Central Texas barbecue. Southside Market, an early proponent of deli-style barbecue, opened in the 1880s. In addition to smoked meats, Southside helped to accelerate the popularity of sausages in the U.S. market, a time-honored tradition to this day. Pit Fiend Barbecue adheres to the tradition of house-made sausage by utilizing the trim from our pork and beef to craft unique links with global heritage, including Colombian chorizo, Italian luganega di monza, German Thuringian rostbratwurst, and South African boerewors, among others. Russian Jewish immigrants popularized pastrami, a monthly tradition at Pit Fiend, following the standard set by Katz’s deli in New York. The oldest continuously operating restaurant in the country to serve smoked brisket, Katz’s stands as a testament to the long and varied history of modern American barbecue.
By the 1700s, European colonists had coopted Native American barbecue techniques, incorporating the art of smoking with their own live fire cooking traditions. Early American politicians enjoyed barbecue-centric social gatherings for parties, holidays, and other special occasions. In wealthy colonial households, smokehouses were often constructed onsite by diverting smoke from the chimneys in communal living spaces to special smoking chambers. The fare typically revolved around pork, a tradition that emerged in some of the early colonies of the American south such as North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia around the turn of the 19th century. Compared to other forms of livestock in colonial America, hogs required less acreage of farmland and were cheaper to feed. They could even be free-ranged to forage when resources were scarce. These free-range hogs, many of which became feral over time, produced leaner, tougher meat upon slaughter. Smoking these tough cuts made them significantly more palatable as they became tenderized over low, indirect heat. The menu at Pit Fiend Barbecue largely reflects the pork-centric preferences of early American pitmasters with a focus on these tougher cuts, most notably the ribs and belly. The popularity of slow-smoked pork spread across the southern United States during the mid-1800s, enjoying widespread popularity in Alabama, Tennessee, and Missouri, all of which have since developed their own local variations. The encompassing culinary tradition known today as “southern BBQ” remains one of America’s oldest continuous cooking traditions.
Despite its reputation among early European colonists, the longevity and cultural ubiquity of southern BBQ is primarily indebted to the innovation of black Americans, particularly those who came to America as a result of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Black slaves and their descendents were economically disenfranchised (for many obvious reasons) even after slavery was abolished in the United States. During the early 1800s, as a uniquely African-American culture emerged among the U.S. population of enslaved or formerly-enslaved peoples, the traditions of low-and-slow cooking took on a starring role in the emergence of a cuisine that is often referred to today as “soul food”. Incorporating West African and Caribbean cooking techniques with the traditional fare commonly served to slaves in the Antebellum South, soul food relies on the prowess of the pitmaster to render otherwise inedible animal byproducts into something delicious. Pork, for the reasons mentioned above, could be obtained relatively inexpensively compared to other types of meat such as beef - especially cheap, unwanted cuts of pork such as fatback, ribs, ham hock, feet, and jowls. Low-and-slow cooking is ideal for cuts like these, which otherwise would be discarded or ground into sausage. Smoking and other slow cooking processes allow collagen to break down into gelatin while also fully rendering intramuscular fat, both of which contribute to tenderization. Among the enslaved population of the Antebellum South, skilled pitmasters enjoyed special social status among their peers, and the time-honored tradition of slow smoked pork was passed down from generation to generation.
By the end of the Civil War, barbecue’s popularity really began to heat up on a national scale. The first recipes for barbecue sauce emerged in popular cookbooks of the day, drawing upon the long-standing traditions of tenderizing and moistening tougher, dryer cuts with citrus juices, vinegar, mustard, or other acidic components, often combined with sweeteners like molasses or honey. Former slaves, some of whom had escaped to the North decades earlier, others of whom were only freed by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, propagated a cultural pride around barbecue and helped elevate it to a position of importance among the traditions surrounding holidays and other notable events. While barbecue remained in the realm of home cooking throughout the 1800s, occupying a special place in the African-American culinary tradition associated with celebrations and large gatherings, the first commercial barbecue restaurants began opening around the turn of the century. Kansas City, home of early barbecue institutions like Perry’s and Arthur Bryant’s, remains America’s barbecue capital to this day, with more BBQ restaurants per capita than any other city in the world. Early on in the 20th century, new food safety standards regulating commercially produced foods forced these first barbecue restaurants to bring their pits inside, and often above ground. This did not deter experienced pitmasters, who used their knowledge of indirect heat and convection to design new styles of smokers compliant with modern food safety standards, ultimately elevating the art of barbecue even further as the craft grew and developed. The Texas-style offset smokers used at Pit Fiend Barbecue were a later development borne of this necessity, emerging in the 1970s and quickly coming to dominate in popularity statewide.
Around the middle of the last century, barbecue became officially ingrained in American culture and history as its popularity exploded among white and black Americans alike. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. organized meetings and events at barbecue restaurants across the south, many of which were owned and operated by former slaves and their descendents. Wealthier European-Americans became more exposed to what was originally a poor, African-American tradition as food critics and experts increasingly sang barbecue’s praises in print and in press. Presidents and dignitaries began dining at the nation’s most renowned barbecue joints. At the same time, increasing access to inexpensive consumer goods in the postwar period facilitated new innovations to barbecue recipes and techniques. In Memphis, a saucy tradition emerged, benefitting from the city’s status as a major hub for national and international trade where more expensive and “exotic” ingredients could be incorporated into existing traditions. Molasses and tomatoes, staples of modern barbecue sauces, were cheaper and easier to obtain in cities like Memphis than in other parts of the south. Texas pioneered beef-based barbecue, a result of the state’s importance in the American cattle industry. Eschewing pork for the more regionally-prevalent choice of livestock, Texas barbecue preserves the principles of low-and-slow cooking by applying them to the cheapest, least desirable cuts of beef. Chuck, beef ribs, and perhaps most famously brisket (the likes of which can be found at Pit Fiend) are considered staples of the Texas barbecue experience, not to mention beef hot links, or “hot guts” - sausages made with ground beef, garlic, chiles, and black pepper in the tradition of Czech and German immigrants.
Today, what Americans consider “barbecue” has grown far beyond the classic Taíno and Timucan traditions, breaking the shackles of slavery, expanding to incorporate international influences, and ultimately rising to the forefront of the American culinary tradition like jazz is to music. While this cultural evolution has increased the global availability, esteem, and influence of American food, massive popularity does have its drawbacks. In the 1900s, economically disadvantaged Americans could enjoy relatively inexpensive beef and pork by opting for cheap, tough cuts, but few such choices exist today. The growing demand for pork ribs, beef brisket, and other slow-smoked favorites has driven up prices for both consumers and restaurateurs. Other aspects of the modern world, from the globalization of the meat trade to the increasing effects of climate change, further impact the availability and prices of the historically undesirable products that favor low-and-slow cooking. In addition, deforestation and modernization in the U.S. energy sector have impacted the cost of firewood, the backbone of all great live-fire cooking. But despite these developments, the spirit of barbecue has persevered, and the techniques required to produce truly exceptional barbecue remain largely unchanged. A good pitmaster in Austin, Kansas City, Louisville, or Memphis will apply most of the same skills and principles to their craft. The physics of low-and-slow cooking remain the same even as the price of meat fluctuates. At Pit Fiend, we believe that the art of barbecue is elevated by the inclusion of high-quality products and the incorporation of non-traditional approaches to low-and-slow smoking. Our USDA Prime brisket, Duroc heritage-breed pork, and globally-inspired sauces may be considered a departure from American (and particularly southern) barbecue traditions, but just as African-American slaves drew upon the influences of Native Americans and Europeans to perfect their craft, our pitmasters are committed to serving the highest quality of food we can produce in our modern American culture with the resources available. If you believe in the prevailing spirit of America’s most classic culinary tradition, then you will always find a seat at our table.