The World of BBQ

Waiting in a bus stop on the Upper East Side, I noticed an advertisement for an outdoor electric grill that's touted as "the grill for the city." That set me to thinking: here we are once again on the verge of the barbecue grilling season. Officially it comes with the Memorial Day holiday. That's when it all starts again as the harbinger of summer.

In my travels throughout the planet I've never encountered anything comparable to our tradition of barbecue. A Japanese hibachi is not a barbecue. The grilled lamb served in Middle Eastern restaurants is not barbecue. No, this is a uniquely American endeavor; and it's a guy thing. Men who wouldn't know how to boil water will, once the days get warm, bring out the backyard grill, don the apron and the gloves, grab the tongs, spatula and steak fork, and begin their barbecue ritual. You will seldom see women doing this (I never have); it's always the guys.

My wife, Holly, attributes this to male bonding over beer and booze. She may have a point there; but it's much more than that. Setting up the grill, whether gas, charcoal or other is a male rite of passage. Slapping on the burgers and hot dogs with salsa and steak sauce is akin to a religious pilgrimage. Why this is so, makes a fascinating topic.

The concept of the barbecue comes from the Caribbean. In the northern part of the island of Hispaniola, the cannibalistic Carib Indians were reputed to have cooked meat over a green wood frame bult over a fire of animal bones and hides. Whether it was human meat or other that they cooked, is open to question. They called the process boucan. From about 1610 onward the Spaniards began cooking the pigs and cattle they had brought to the island in the same manner. They called the greenwood frame a barbacoa. Today we know this as barbecue---without the Caribs natural flavorings, or course.

American barbecuing as we know it, originated in the South. One theory posits that Caribbean peoples migrated to the south-eastern U.S. and brought with them the concept of barbecue. It quickly spread throughout the South where the pig was a ubiquituous staple. Pig roasts became a southern tradition and southern barbecue grew out of that. From there it spread to the north where it becanme omnipresent at church picnics and socials, and political rallies. Barbecue even made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968 where in the case of Newman v. Piggy Park Enterprises, Inc., the court ruled that Maurice Bessinger's chain (Piggy Park) unlawfully discriminated against African-Americans.

Today barbecue grilling in the U.S. is enjoyed by every class and every race---but it's still a male dominated cooking thing. That, as Tevye would say in Fiddler on the Roof, is tradition!

One more thing. True-blue southerners would never spell barbecue with a "q." That is for Yankee outdoor food parties. It's always barbecue with a "c"---unless it's abbreviated, then it's BBQ.

In my second cookbook, The Pharaoh's Feast (Aavalon Books), I comment on the phenomenon of the suburbs and backyard grilling. And the fifties are identified with it. That's when the suburbs mushroomed and scorching labs of meat outdoors became the norm. Below is a recipe fetaured in that tome and it comes from The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery (1956). The recipe gives you an idea of what barbecuing 1950s style was all about.


For 4 persons you should have 2 pounds of ground beef chuck, top round or top sirloin. Form the meat, being certain that you can handle it lightly, into a large cake about 2 to 3 inches thick. Salt and pepper it well, and place in a long-handled grill or small gridiron over the coals. Broil it quickly, really just sear it well on each side, and get it crusty on the outside and soft and rare in the center. Remove to a hot platter, cut it in wedges, and serve. It is good with roasted corn and slices of raw onion which have been vinegared and salted and allowed to marinate for an hour or two.

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