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In the loosest definition of the word, barbecue can mean cooking over an open flame outdoors. In fact, that’s grilling. Cognoscenti know barbecue as a distinct way of cooking with smoke by indirect heat. A barbecue pit, plain or fancy, is a way to contain smoldering coals or other heat source in one area with a chimney somewhere else for the smoke to escape, and a grate to hold meat between the two. Hours of basking in smoke as it travels from coals to smokestack turn even tough cuts tender. Grilling is quick. Barbecuing is slow.
Barbecue, the noun, has different meanings, including:
- A specific food produced by the pit (“Dinner consists of barbecue, hush puppies, and cole slaw.”)
- The whole meal. (“Let’s go to Bubba’s Rib Shack for barbecue.”)
- The place in which the meal is served. (“Let me tell you about a great barbecue I found.”)
- A party. (“Let’s have a barbecue!”)
The word itself most likely originally was Spanish, from the barbacoa grills that seventeenth century explorers discovered in the Caribbean. But there are more colorful tales to explain the name, among them:
- BBQ began as shorthand to describe Southern beer parlors with pool tables that used to have neon signs advertising Bar, Beer and Ques.
- French explorers described the Caribbean natives’ technique of cooking whole hogs as “beard to tail,” which in French is barbe à queue.
- There once was a Texas cattle rancher named Barnaby Quinn who was well-known for serving neighbors meals of beef cooked over fire pits. Quinn’s brand was a straight line above his initials: the Bar B Q brand.
Barbecue, the meal, is like DNA: no two examples are precisely alike, although each style has certain markers that it shares with other styles, revealing its membership in a certain barbecue family or, if you will, a particular food phylum in the Kingdom of Meat. By that measure, major phyla would be pig, cow and mutton; each of those has several classes (say, pork butt and ribs; beef brisket and tri-tip); and each class has orders and species (chopped vs. pulled, for example). Such taxonomy does not even purport to include such vital defining side issues as type of wood, proper side dishes, specific rituals of eating and serving, and the whole question of sauce.
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