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The Geography of Barbecue

The History and Geographic Distribution of the Barbecue


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Barbecue (often barbeque or simply BBQ) is the quintessential American food. Although it is often associated with the United States in popular culture, both the term barbecue and the process we know as barbecuing originated on islands in the Caribbean. The ideas, perceptions, and practices of barbecuing have evolved over the centuries as a result of the blending of many traditional ways of cooking meat in folk cultures.

In the United States today, the tradition of barbecue varies by geographic region. Each has its own special way of preparing and experiencing the barbecue tradition. From the Carolina coast to the plains of Texas, barbecue retains an identity as varied as the people that enjoy its smoky goodness.

What Is Barbecue?

The word barbecue can take many forms. It can be a verb (to barbecue), a noun (a grill/cooking device or even a social event where people gather to eat outdoors), and also an adjective (barbecue sauce). These different meanings, coupled with the many traditions of barbecue, both in the U.S. and around the world, make generating an exact definition a cumbersome exercise. Barbecuing, although often used interchangeably with grilling, is actually its own distinct from of roasting meat. Grilling involves the application of direct, high heat for a short period of time, whereas barbecuing involves the indirect application of low heat for a longer period of time. Barbecue is also known for infusing a smoky flavor into the meat being cooked.

History and Origin of Barbecue

Recent scientific findings indicate that humans have been cooking meat with fire for approximately a million years. But, it is commonly accepted that the modern tradition of barbecue comes from a process of slow-cooking meat practiced by the Taíno People, the pre-European inhabitants of islands in the Caribbean. In fact, our word barbecue comes from the European transliteration of the Taíno term for their process of cooking meat over an open fire - barbacoa.

The Taíno method involved lashing together tree branches over an open fire and placing the meat well above the heat source so it would cook slowly. Often they would season the meat with locally found herbs and spices. The meat they cooked in this manner came from the locally available animals found on the islands such as lizards or other small mammals. When Europeans started colonizing the Americas, they brought with them pigs because they required little maintenance and could be turned loose in the forests. Before long wild pigs became a main source of food for inhabitants of many of the islands in the area. An interesting side note, pirates in the region, because of their criminal activities, were often not welcome in cities. They resorted to hunting wild pigs on more remote islands for food and cooking them over a fire (following in the Taíno style). The French word for cooking in this manner is boucaner (to smoke meat) and someone that cooks with this method is a boucanier, which is where we get our modern English word buccaneer.

Diffusion of BBQ to the United States

Due to the proximity of the southern United States and the Caribbean, it didn't take long for barbecue to diffuse to the region. The plantation-style agriculture practiced in both regions required the use of slave labor. The African American slaves utilized barbecuing because of the method by which the meat is cooked, making it a cheap, delicious, and therefore popular method for cooking large amounts of food.

By the 1800s the tradition was well established in the South, the region with which it is most commonly associated today. But, in the decades after the Civil War, the newly freed African American slaves migrated to northern cities looking for work and took with them their barbecue recipes.

Barbecue Hearths in the U.S.

Although barbecue can now be found all across the U.S., there are a few regions that claim to be the barbecue capitals. Each of these capitals has its own unique tradition and style for barbecuing meat and the local style is named after its city or place of origin. The differences between each style can be attributed to the type of meat used, the spices added for flavoring, and also the sauces.

In the U.S. there are four commonly accepted barbecue capitals: Memphis, Tennessee; North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; and Texas. Within each region are several sub regions, often vying with each other for recognition as the best of that particular style.

Southerners retain pork as the meat of choice for barbecue, primarily because of the historical tradition of utilizing the locally available pigs which were easier to farm in the eastern woodlands. In North Carolina, the style is to use vinegar-based sauces and barbecue the pig whole (whole-hog). Memphis-style includes wet (saucy) ribs and basting the meat while roasting. Kansas City-style combines some beef into the mix, but pork is still predominant. Kansas City-style style also uses thicker, sweeter sauces.

Texas is the exception to southern barbecue where it is more closely associated with beef, especially in the cattle country of western part of the state. There, beef brisket reigns supreme. Texans also prefer their barbecue naked, meaning dry with sauces only on the side.


The popularity of barbecue has grown in recent years and currently is increasing in many parts of the world outside of the U.S. Without a doubt, wherever this tradition goes, a new style of barbecue is created and new flavors, spices and cooking methods are added to the litany of barbecue traditions.

If you ask people which style of barbecue is the best, you will more than likely get a variety of different answers. One thing is for certain, each of the barbecue capitals is proud of its own traditions. An article in the U.S. News and World Report, however, put together a list of the seven best cities for barbecue. According to this list, it appears Memphis is the barbecue King… for now.

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