Contrary to popular belief, merely throwing a slab or a few pieces of meat onto a grill over an open flame for a few minutes isn’t actually barbecue.
While many people have come to accept this common style of cooking over an open flame as barbecue by today’s standards, real barbecue is actually cooked over an indirect heat source & for a very extensive amount of time.
For example, sometimes the meat will stay inside the pit, oven, or grill even for as long as 18 hours. The indirect heat ensures that the meat can be slowly cooked for the long period of time & not come out charred & another reason for this method is so that the smoke caused by the heat will be absorbed as part of the flavor. This is part of the reason why, even today, wood & charcoal grilling still remains the more popular decision over gas grilling.
As a result of this elaborate but simple cooking process, the flavor produced becomes an explosively powerful combination of juiciness, fat, smoke, & spices or rubs that may have been treated to the meat.
In general, no one knows exactly where the word barbecue was originally coined. The most popularly accepted history is that when the Spanish conquistadors landed in the Caribbean back in the 16th century & saw the natives’ slowly cooking meat over their large wood pits, they began using the word barbacoa to reference it. As the cooking technique caught on throughout the colonization of the Americas by more European settlers, namely the English, the American South continued to refine & perfect barbecuing until it became what we’re familiar with as of today. In fact, barbecuing in America frequently with the use of pork & having corn bread on the side wasn’t just intentional, it was actually an incidental result of the American South having an abundance of pigs in the region during the time & corn was favored over wheat since growing wheat to make bread was largely prone to failure due to fungal infections.
Although it may be an elaborate & long process of cooking, barbecue did two amazing things that made it so efficient & prevalent throughout the centuries. Because you would actually have to intentionally try & burn the meat, you couldn’t ruin barbecue so not only was it a simple method of cooking as easy as throwing something on the grill & forgetting about it, you could also cook a large abundance of it all at once. This allowed barbecue to be the choice method of providing attraction & nourishment for large crowds during the typical town gatherings & festivals often held during the time — more frequently so than today — as part of American tradition.
Barbecue became even more popular among the impoverished blacks of the American South during those times. Because barbecue doesn’t necessarily rely on the quality of the pork or beef cut, it became a staple diet for the largely poor black communities of that era. As the black population began moving from the South to the Northern regions of America, they also took with them their barbecue recipes & opened many restaurants across every state in America. This is why barbecue is also widely known as “soul food” & is a cuisine strongly associated with the African-American community even until today.
There are a plethora of other barbecue techniques from other countries, including Korean barbecue which uses thin slices of beef, pork, or seafood cooked over an open flame & served with a side of rice. Latin-America has asado which is un-marinated meat cooked in a pit. Let’s not forget there’s also Mongolian barbecue, which isn’t actually of Mongolian origin nor is it even barbecue at all, but a stir-fry dish invented in Taiwan. Regardless of what type of barbecue you prefer, true barbecue is largely characterized as a classic American dish.