One of the craziest concepts that humankind has innovated just so happens to be the art of barbecue. Yet it seems that history only goes so far back to give us proof of where smoking meat was initially discovered. What we’ve discovered along the way is partly a timeline of what the motivation of early humans soon realized between the comfort and protection of fire and their food.
The Dawn of Man
You might be tempted to think of that opening sequence in 2001: A Space Odessey and remember those strange ape-like creatures beating a pile of leftover bones. At some point over 500,000 years ago, there is some slight evidence that a version of Homo Erectus called Peking Man may have been among the first cave dwellers that used fire to cook their food.
It was around this time that changes in the dietary needs of the early Homo Erectus were shifting into a diet that began to use fire to prepare and cook their foods. This theory supposes that food that was cooked using fire enabled this race to metabolize protein faster and reduced food toxicity due to a foraging diet. As a result, early mankind could then begin to grow in their population due to improved diets using fire as a whole.
Since this race of upright walking humanoids was also adaptive to making primitive tools, it’s likely they also fashioned cooking pits or suspended animal parts above a fire source to cook the flesh. Possibly, bits of meat were exposed to smoke from the fires which caused the meat to have a naturally smoky flavor. This would have been a huge improvement in the taste and tenderness of the meat itself, making it more popular to eat.
While this can’t be confirmed 100%, it’s natural to assume that modern people are creatures of habit. Once people get a taste of good barbecue, we keep going back to it because of the smoky flavors. It’s also the best reason why and how early humans began to smoke meat because it affected the flavor. But if that was the only reason, it wouldn’t have played such a vital role in early food preservation.
You see, what ancient man could not have figured out at that time was that their food could not be preserved so easily. It needed to be eaten so that tools made from bone could be used. This is when it would have become obvious that smoky cooked meat that was leftover on these bones wouldn’t decay as fast as simply cooked meat. And though this is all thanks to aldehydes and other compounds in smoke, they would soon see smoke as being useful
Early examples of smoked meat
Early men did not start smoking brisket like a boss, but the information on what smoke would do to meats would soon start to be shared between colonies and groups. It might have been easier to transport cooked meats to others that could be traded or shared. Not only could this early smoking method work on any kind of meat, but it also worked wonders on fish and animals living in the water.
As evidence had further shown that life in the Paleolithic era, early experiments of preserving meat were accomplished using smoking huts. This would have been helpful to destroy germs and microorganisms that were slowed down and even stopped completely by smoking their meat. Smoke also helped to dehydrate food which adds to the overall flavor and aroma.
It would have been more common for communities living near rivers or bodies of water would also learn to catch as much as they could to later smoke these foods so they would last longer in months where food was scarce. This method not only spread like wildfire throughout the early Stone Age, the smoking methods only got better with time. This also helped with discovering which burning fuels were safe and were not.
As we all know these days, hardwoods such as oak and hickory make the best smoke flavors. There are also many reasons to use fruit woods including apple and cherry that help make fish or poultry taste better likewise. But for early Stone Age smokers who learned to use wood including pine, cedar, or sycamore would find this made the meat taste terrible. Not only are these types of wood bad for smoking, but the sap and terpenes are also highly toxic!
This is likely the point where early barbecue smokers started sharing stories about which wood works best and which meat should be used. Learning about which wood to use and which wood not to use, was likely trial and error and would have resulted in stomach sickness or toxic effects from the sap and terpenes which make the smoke poisonous. The next big steps in smoking meat were truly biblical in the making.
On the 8th day, let there be smoke!
We’ve all heard of the Old Testament which most people feel tells an accurate story of biblical events. The original version was written in Hebrew and was originally around 1500 years before the time of Christ. Well, it seems that Moses had more than a few requests than just the 10 commandments. Moses instructed his followers to build a big smoker with ash pans, a grate, and hooks for animals to be sacrificed in God’s name.
Moses gave the instructions on how to make this smoker and how to work it, but more importantly, how to make it easy to transport. Later, by the time you get to Chapter 29, it’s a curious note that Aaron (Moses’ brother) realizes that God wanted a smoker to enjoy the smell of this barbecue sacrifice, yet the rest of the smoked meat should be enjoyed by Moses and the rest of his priests. Talk about one of the earliest and holiest grill parties!
But that information we likely shared with the Egyptians who also enjoyed smoking meats. Not only that, Egyptians had been better-known for their practice of preserving nearly anything! But unlike making mummies, they also preserved many foods for mummies that would last just as long as their mummies would. They were among a select few that would salt and smoke their meats which added a whole new layer to meat preservation.
Aside from salting meat before it becomes smoked, the methods for smoking became so prevalent in the following centuries, as the practice was obviously tried and tested. All across the world, these smokingly effective secrets were shared with the Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and eventually the western world. Between the 5th to 15 centuries, early Europeans preferred this method and flavor with the emergence of smokehouses.
Smokehouse flavor is nothing new
If you’ve noticed anything about smoking meat, different types of smoking are meant to produce different effects. There is hot smoking and cold smoking that is used in meats, but only cold smoke helps preserve meat. This is where smokehouses only use cold smoke where temperatures rarely go above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Meats are often salted before they become smoked but afterward will become cured meats.
What we see more often these days is hot smoking that can be adjusted so the meat will cook at longer temperatures but still gets exposed to smoke while it cooks. Smokehouses were popular buildings that can still be seen across Europe. In the UK, old smokehouses are still standing due to the wild craze of smoked fish and pork which were the preferred cured meat that people there still love to eat.
Many of the older smokehouses that were constructed in the 17th century were at least 18 feet tall and no more than 6 feet wide. This is also where items such as sausages, salmon, pork, and duck were all smoked to perfection. As if this was a typical practice that was isolated within most of Europe, it was a bit of a surprise that Spanish sailors encountered native Taino Indians.
They found this isolated Indian tribe smoking their meats on a wooden rack above a fire which the Taino people called Baracoa. The Spanish would ultimately transform and translate this word into barbecue. But that’s not the interesting part since smoking meat in the Caribbean and throughout the early exploration of the Americas way back in the 1500s. By the time America was founded, European colonists brought their smoking skills with them.
The tradition of smoking meat not only helped early Americans cure their meats, but they were also still using the same methods passed down from previous generations. This went a long way for early Americans since salted and cured pork could last for such a long time. When it comes to traditional barbecue smoking methods, the passion for hot smoking is now more common than the practice of cold smoking.
It also seems that cured meats are not as important for preserving meat for long-term needs ever since refrigeration and freezing are so commonplace. But if there was ever a fad that never lost its appeal, smoked meat flavor is simply something that’s part of the human experience. Perhaps it gives all of us a taste of what our distant cousins from the Stone Age might have been so excited about when they tried smoked meat for the first time.
The 1800s -1900s – An Era of New World Smoke
Early colonial America brought many new influences and traditions directly from Europe when it came to meat preservation. As we’ve covered this history in the previous section, smoking meat in Europe had become so popular that it created a powerful industry that was dedicated to smoking all types of meats and fish. Yet, for a completely new country that was starting to emerge, it was also a matter of daily survival.
Many people do not realize how much American Indians and Slaves played a massive role in turning the tide for simple meat preservation into a culinary tradition. Perhaps it was the lessons learned from how meat was cooked and smoked by the local natives living in the Caribbean. As proof of this, the earliest introduction that was learned while exploring the early Americas discovered that barbecued meat was a lifestyle rather than just preservation.
Barbecue is a new world practice
Even though smoked meats were better for preserving meat in the long run for most Europeans, there was no actual proof of barbecuing methods that were common throughout Europe. Most everything was boiled, broiled, and cooked in a pot to help make dried meat easier to eat using the preferred methods. So, for some very unlucky explorers who had Indian guides that traveled through Central America and the Caribbean, they had no choice for what they had to eat along their journey.
It seems that barbecue was indeed a distasteful method of cooking and was considered primitive by the Europeans. Explorers looked down on natives and felt their cooking method of making barbecue was crude and barbaric. Yet, this is also a double-edged sword since the explorers gladly ate these smoked meats that were slow-cooked over a wooden frame suspended above a fire.
It didn’t take very long before the love of the barbecuing practice began to spread into the northern colonies within America. Proof of this attitude could not be more apparent than how barbecue evolved in the next century. It’s also a sad historical note that the practice of barbecue was often full of prejudice and entitlement. In many cases, wealthy land owners loved to celebrate their wealth by holding barbecue parties.
Long before the Civil War, another major event known as the American Revolution used barbecue events to bring people together. Since colonial America was fairly-young at being as modernized as Britain was, livestock such as beef was a commodity that was time-consuming to cultivate. This is where the practice of raising hogs was a better solution for the early colonists.
Aside from that, hogs grew quickly and they yield a lot of meat and obviously fat. This made them perfect for barbecues which would help reduce the fat as the meat was slow-cooked over an iron grate with plenty of smoke. Early political hopefuls including George Washington held barbecue parties pretty often to gather support for his generosity. Old Georgie also added plenty of alcohol to go along with these all-day BBQ events.
It wouldn’t be any surprise that the cooks at these BBQ parties were all black slaves who had learned these skills from those who learned about the native BBQ cooking method. By the 1820s, barbecue parties had spread so significantly through the Virginias, Carolinas, and into Alabama. Slaves had adapted these barbecue recipes to make them efficiently and had begun to create rubs and sweet sauces that would make barbecued pork taste even better.
A Battle of Faith and Division over Pork
It seems that early America has some skeletons in the closet when it comes to its love for pork BBQ. Because pork dominated the new colonies, the taste of smoked pork became the preferred flavor that new Americans couldn’t get enough of. The industry of pork was so dominant that the smoking of pork was slowly flooding into the lower southern territory. Before this, mutton, beef, poultry, and chicken were a common sight in southern regions.
After 1820, the next 30 years would prove to establish barbecue as a purely political event that helped politicians become elected. It also served as a statement that any BBQ celebration was assured to mainly separate those who were Jewish and could not eat pork. Indeed, these were times when religion and faith were defining the new church and state.
The Deep South was one of the few liberal strongholds that resisted pork as much as possible and had been making barbecues with everything else that could be smoked besides pork. These events became more and more politically motivated and went so far as to encourage white women to attend these events. This was partly to entice the wives of possible voter husbands and help influence them to vote for these candidates.
It wasn’t until 1860 in Montgomery Alabama that a political secessionist William Lowndes Yancey held a barbecue bash at the Bethel Church. His kick-off speech insisted that the south become a separate entity from the Government and thus a new Southern Confederacy should be created. Only a week later at another BBQ party in Benton, the Central Southern Congress of the Leagues was formed. Needless to say, a year later the Civil War changed everything as a result of this new southern stance.
Even after the war ended in 1865, the southern tradition of barbecues had been elevated to cultural icon status. It was also a tradition of cultural disenfranchisement toward black people. This had spread so far throughout the south that news of slavery being abolished in Texas wasn’t heard until June of 1866. This is also where Juneteenth celebrations originated when over 250,000 slaves got the news after it arrived in Galveston.
The spread of the news was so energetic among the newly freed Texas slaves that barbecues became synonymous with Juneteenth celebrations. It might not have defined Texas BBQ, but since black people were already accomplished pitmasters in their own right, this would lend itself to the menu items that were also served with these BBQ items. Smoked brisket, pork ribs, and watermelon were among the main items to eat in 1883.
It seems that watermelon was one such item that was added because of the abundance of them in mid-June. This dispels the myth that red menu items are racially motivated for Juneteenth celebrations. It seems that IKEA was recently targeted for misappropriation by adding watermelon salad to their menu. But- then again, history is typically lost to those who fall into the liberal political spectrum.
This is perhaps why many barbecued menu items in Texas are traditionally reddish-colored all thanks to the Yoruba and Congo tribes who brought their traditions with them from Africa when they were enslaved. These tribal people added local Texas spices and rubs to smoked meat to make them reddish-colored using a variety of techniques. This included a tomato-based sauce that created the iconic smooth and sweet BBQ sauce that’s red and tangy.
And though Texas was annexed in 1845, the tradition of BBQ was well-suited to the difficult living conditions within this new frontier. By the 1880s the drive west was often accompanied by the introduction of barbecue to the new migrant settlers that were coming from Europe. With each new settler that came to Texas, the new Czechs, Poles, Germans, and Russians all brought traditions of smoking meat with them.
This is one of the reasons why Texas BBQ often has so many variants to how the BBQ process is done. One prime example of imported smoking knowledge is located in Lockhart, Texas using the Polish method of smoking ribs and sausages.
Barbecue is all-American… Competitions, Cookoffs, & Championships
By the turn of the century, barbecue has become well-rooted in identifying as an American cultural identity. Every state throughout the entire country was now enjoying its own brand of BBQ meat. This division is what created such a variety of BBQ sauces and meat dishes. This friendly rivalry is what is distinctly American in a country where every barbecue recipe can eventually be outdone by avid BBQ enthusiasts.
And this cannot be discounted for the very reason that the simple mention of barbecue helps open up conversation and unity- all due to the topic itself. For the first 40 years of the 20th century, Americans could enjoy barbecue events to celebrate nearly anything, while for others it was a newfound hobby. This was, until the onset of the Second World War.
Many young Americans enlisted to fight a growing threat to the American way which reduced much of the population during that period. In many towns all across the US, barbecues became less frequent along with food that was rationed for the war. Before the war, it was common that some of the earliest smoked meat barbecues would gather attention to seek out the best of the best in many towns across the US.
One of the strangest came out of Texas between Quay Franklin and Bob (Barbecue) Grimes. The story itself sounds more like one that comes from True Crime Detective but was only a taste of what came later when smoked meat competitions became mainstream events. The end of the war brought many Americans home to celebrate life and obviously an emerging pastime of the early 1950s.
Only two years after the end of the Second World War, something was brewing in Europe that began to get noticed quickly. This is when the Cold War began on March 12th, 1947, but for most Americans, the threat of communism did not become a realization until the 2nd Red Scare of the 1950s became a reality. This is where relations with the Soviet Union turned Americans weary of a communist invasion threat from Eastern Europe.
The solution to this Red Scare was to give Americans more of the comfort that helped them to feel connected to their celebrated history. This included many products and options to have barbecues at home since the general idea was that barbecue is an All-American tradition that communists don’t enjoy. In 1952, the introduction of the Weber kettle grill first emerged which was the first in its category to inspire a nationwide barbecue mania.
It should be noted that the first of these grills looked a bit like Sputnik, which was the first Russian satellite. For this reason, the kettle grill was changed so it didn’t have a communist feeling attached to it. But after this, the design looked more like a large shiny kettle on standing legs. As this new product gained popularity, it gave consumers more opportunities to smoke their meats in any weather because of the convenient dome-shaped lid.
Another influencer from the BBQ craze of the 50s was Henry Kaiser, who built an empire of aluminum materials during the 2nd World War. He was the first to introduce a new product used for smoking and grilling on the barbecue called: Aluminum foil. His biggest promotion came from the wildest BBQ competition during the 1950s that Americans would ever see. This event was called the Kaiser Foil BBQ Cookoff and was the last of its kind in this hectic era.
Even though the Red Scare diminished by the late 50s, this was nothing compared to the BBQ culture that bloomed in many directions. Backyard barbecues became overlapped with Tiki lounge parties in the 1960s and early 70s. And though BBQ culture has gone through a rough patch in the 70s and 80s, this is where BBQ championships began to pop up from city to city.
The attendance to these cook-offs drew huge crowds and often reinvigorated certain cities that were going through hard times. One memorable event that took place in 1978 was the very first Memphis in May which nearly crippled BBQ culture due to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. just a year earlier. This event was also one of the first BBQ events where a woman took first prize for her pork ribs cooked on an old oil drum smoker practically identical to the Ugly Drum Smoker which has an iconic following among BBQ enthusiast today. We extensively reviewed the model sold by the Pit Barrel Cooker Co.
Thankfully for the efforts of Mrs. Bessie Louise Cathey, this helped launch a series of BBQ cookoffs that have been going strong for MIM since 1978! After this, the entire decade of the 1980s, BBQ culture became more focused on the rise of BBQ joints and the enjoyment of eating barbecue rather than making it. Many of these restaurants would come and go, but the love for BBQ never stopped many up-and-coming pitmasters that knew good homemade smoked BBQ always draws a crowd.
BBQ gets shredded in the 90s
Despite plenty of barbecue competitions, these were once-a-year curiosities that created a whole new generation interested in making barbecue specialties. Among the big winners in the early 1990s was the introduction of pulled pork. This new variant of smoked pork shoulder could be prepared wet or dry depending on how it was cooked. Some BBQ historians claim that it originally came from the Carolinas, but there are plenty of states that all claim they came up with this idea first.
The meat is smoked for hours until it’s so tender it can be pulled apart with tongs or a fork. In some places, you’ll find that pulled pork looks as fine as threads when chopped to bits by meat cleavers. But the result is always the same after being slathered with BBQ sauce and a wide variety of sides to soak up all of the leftover sauce. This is also when Korean and Mongolian BBQ started to emerge as a contender to traditional BBQ dishes.
Sadly, this trend was short-lived since the flavors and taste just never matched the smoky flavor that American pitmasters could provide. It’s just not the style that most Americans would accept as a substitute for a long-standing tradition that’s been around since the creation of the US. By the early 2000s, the trend of BBQ grill cooking would soon find a completely new niche.
Millennial BBQ gets rebranded
The internet was new and gave many people (who were curious) a new direction about learning information on the World Wide Web at the beginning of the 2000s. Many new websites dedicated to everything of any interest could be found, which is where BBQ fans could find a new place to share their grilling and smoking stories. It was the introduction of BBQ Smoking Forums that revitalized the interest in home smoking once again. And though many of these older website forums have come and gone, the idea stuck.
With the rise of the internet, more information began to be shared by people all over the world. Not only did it get America smoking and grilling again, but a whole online community of curious people who loved the idea of smoking barbecued meat at home. By the time Youtube appeared in 2005, this allowed many people to upload their BBQ videos to show off their cooking skills. These days, it’s turned into a full-time job for some who do nothing but smoke and grill for educational purposes.
And with so much free information that’s available to view hours of instructional smoking videos, it can turn any amateur into an overnight BBQ star with all of the right tips and metrics that are featured. Heck, most of these Youtube stars all have their signature merchandise being sold which (kind of) cheapens the whole idea. As one Youtuber had mentioned in their video, once smell-o-vision is installed on a VR headset, this will be the ultimate game-changer in the BBQ smoking industry. That would be history in the making when that eventually happens…
This will never replace actually eating BBQ, which is how many fans of slow-cooked and smoked BBQ are traditionally made. The advantage of these methods does mean that modern methods simply cannot replace the hours of labor that go into smoking these meats. Even when some industries have used pressure cookers to speed up the cooking process, this has mixed results when smoked meat is being made.
Only the future will hold proof of how smoked BBQ meat is perfected, or if this will be another battle that will emerge that separates Americans once again. All that we can say is that smoked barbecue meat done the old-fashioned way is here to stay.