Despite the myriad uses of the word in modern English and regional squabbling over the topic, the etymology seems to be pretty concrete.
I guess the Spaniards kept decent records of their decimation of indigenous populations in the West Indies. In any case, “barbecue” derives from the Spanish barbacoa, which in turn comes from the Taino word barabicu(?), which is the word for a structure of sticks used to elevate stuff off the ground, including meat for cooking or drying. The Taino are also credited with inventing the hammock, and indeed the raised stick structure was also used for sleeping. So the classic image of a suburban guy chilling in a hammock while steaks are working on the grill is a surreal replay of a pre-Columbian scenario. Cool!
Eventually the word and practice spread and morphed – in Mexico, barbacoa refers to meat (usually a goat) that’s cooked elaborately in a buried pit, sort of a combo of steaming and smoking (it looks like the term may have been applied to an existent method of cooking). In southern Texas, the same term is used for steamed cow’s head. Barbecue has been practiced in the US since the 1600’s, brought along with settlers to the East Coast and Florida. It seems originally the term could be applied to the awesomely fun occasion that is the consequence of cooking and eating an entire pig. Virginia passed a law outlawing the firing of guns in the air during barbecues in the late 17th century, an eerie portend of July 4th celebrations in Baltimore.
The US seems to be the only country in the world where barbecue indicates long and slow cooking instead of direct-heat grilling. It saddens me to conclude that the barbecue-as-grilling usage may be considered more authentic, or at least closer to the original meaning of the word, if this drawing is to be believed:
This sucks because I’ve spent most of my adult life cringing when folks use “barbecue” and “grill” interchangeably. But there is no question that in the US, barbecue, both as a term and practice, is far more involved. Regional variants share major similarities, most importantly that the cooking is indirect and extended. The differences lie mainly in the type of meat used, seasoning, and sauce.
I am currently engaged in getting good at making ribs, and I prefer a sort of hybrid Memphis style. I use spare ribs, which I believe to have better flavor, and a sweetish rub.There is a sentiment out there that using back ribs is kind of cutting a corner, because they are generally more tender to begin with. I feel however that the trade off in flavor is not worthwhile. Some contend that back ribs are “higher on the hog” and thus better, but I need only one word to rebut that assertion: BACON. Spare ribs, well trimmed, all the way.
What I look for is ribs that are most, well seasoned, and tender but not too tender. Also, and this is just a personal preference, but I’ve always associated BBQ with a strong sweet component as far as seasoning.
I smoke with unseasoned apple and/or cherry wood whenever possible, for which I have a pretty reliable and reasonably priced [secret]source. I find hickory and mesquite to be way too strong,and have found pecan and oak to be a bit too mild. I think the apple/cherry diad is ideal (apple on left, cherry on right):
More coming soon….