Thoughts from Others on Traditional Barbecue
Click on a link below to read the author's article or just scroll through the page.
Dan Gill on Smoke Dan Gill's Barbecue History 101 Leonard Lehew
Ted Tewkesbury

[Editors Note:  If we could recommend just one article for barbecue newcomers to read,  it would be the article, immediately below, written by Dan Gill "on smoke".  If we could recommend just one article for the vast majority of veteran barbecuers to read,  it would also be this article.  If you have any intention of cooking, judging or even speaking intelligently about authentic barbecue,  it is paramount that you understand and accept what is presented in this article.]

Dan Gill on Smoke

I have given this question a lot of thought since I have been on the lists and noticed the remarkable difference in what folks consider to be "good smoke".  I believe that historically, strong smoke flavor was considered to be a defect and a sign of an unrefined cook.  Cooking with fire was the norm, either on the hearth or in chimney niches and great pains were taken to assure that meat did not taste smoky.  Roasting was done in front of the fire, usually on a spit turned by a boy named Jack or his mechanical counterpart.  Broiling was done on a gridiron placed over live coals.  Whole animals were "barbecued" in a hole in the ground with hardwood burnt to coals.  Sometimes rocks were heated to hold the temperature longer.  The whole she-bang would be covered to keep the heat in long enough for the meat to cook.  None of these methods would result in a strong smoky flavor.  Even the Indian method of planking shad minimized smoke flavor as the fish was cooked and dried by radiant heat beside an open fire.  The exception was trail cooking but even then a bed of coals did the actual cooking and fresh wood was only added as needed to keep the (open) fire up.  Iron pots were valued, essential possessions during early colonial times, ranking along with hoes and axes in early inventories.  Indians made and used clay pots for cooking and traded them to early settlers as evidenced by pottery shards found around early dwellings.  Pot cooking matured into Dutch oven cooking but again, coals were used for heat, and smoke was minimized.

Contained smoke was used, out of necessity, to help preserve meat.  Typical plantations had smokehouses or a large chimney where meat could be hung to smoke and then kept through warm weather.  Salt was extremely important to the colonists for preserving meat and was a strategic objective during early conflicts.  Cured meat was often smoked to aid in preserving.  Even so, tainted meat was a common complaint among soldiers and sailors until after the War of Northern Aggression.  If smoke flavor was considered to be a culinary asset, then early wood cooking stoves could easily have been designed to provide it.  To the contrary, housekeepers were quick to embrace methods, which completely eliminated smoke; patent wood stoves, then kerosene, gas and electric.  When "outdoor" cooking was rediscovered during the forties and fifties, charcoal was the fuel of choice because of the subtle wood flavor, then gas gained in popularity eliminating even that concession to smoke.  The few "old time" cookers remaining that used hardwood, burned to coals and never actually cooked with raw wood.  Raw wood is hard to control: it flares and flames risking igniting the meat or pit and it contributes raw, bitter flavors to the meat if allowed to linger too long in an enclosure.  This leads to the conclusion that the use of heavy smoke concentrated and contained in an enclosure, to cook and flavor meat is a modern phenomena.  Right or wrong is not the issue as long as the result meets with the favor of the cooker and his audience.  As for me and my forebears (sic), smoke should be a subtle enhancement to the meat and not dominate.

Dan        Dan Gill's Web Site

Top of Page

Dan Gill's  Barbecue History 101

By the time settlers started barbecuing in Eastern NC and Virginia, the English, French, Dutch and Spanish explorers and settlers had a whole century of exposure to native cooking methods some of which were slowly incorporated into the European culture.  Specific methods varied greatly from Virginia, down the coast to Florida, the Caribbean and the South American mainland but the basic technique was similar throughout the "New World".  Meat was smoked and dried or cooked slowly over or near a fire, usually supported by a framework of sticks that became known as a barbecue.  The meat was often seasoned by salt (where available) and various botanicals, which either helped extend shelf life (along with the smoke) or enhanced the flavor or added nutrients.  In North Carolina (then Virginia) Indians cooked meat seasoned with sassafras and other herbs.  Unlike the well-known practice in Florida, the objective was to cook rather than preserve. Capsicum peppers dominated the seasoning mixes in Central America and the Caribbean.  Cooked meat was dipped in a "pepper pot" which was a highly spiced mixture of peppers, native spices, land crabs and meat or whatever was handy.  Allspice (pimento) was used in the Islands both to season and the wood used to smoke.  Two hundred years later, allspice was a popular item in trading posts and was used by Indians to help repel flies from meat.  Accounts by French and Dutch pirates suggest that by the first half of the Seventeenth Century, when Eastern NC was settled, the barbecue method was well known to Europeans.  The pig had become the meat of choice (and convenience), and spicy sauce (gravy) made from a variety of ingredients was generally used as an accompaniment. Fatty pig meat required slow cooking over coals in order to avoid grease fires and flare-ups.

Ketchup is a sauce made with vinegar and a predominant ingredient such as walnuts, oysters, mushrooms, or tomatoes as indicated by this quote from "Word History: The word ketchup exemplifies the types of modifications that can take place in borrowing both of words and substances.  The source of our word ketchup may be the Malay word kechap, possibly taken into Malay from the Cantonese dialect of Chinese.  Kechap, like ketchup, was a sauce, but one without tomatoes, rather, it contained fish brine, herbs, and spices.  Sailors seem to have brought the sauce to Europe, where it was made with locally available ingredients such as the juice of mushrooms or walnuts.  At some unknown point, when the juice of tomatoes was first used, ketchup as we know it was born.  But it is important to realize that in the 18th and 19th centuries ketchup was a generic term for sauces whose only common ingredient was vinegar.  The word is first recorded in English in 1690 in the form catchup, in 1711 in the form ketchup, and in 1730 in the form catsup.  All three spelling variants of this foreign borrowing remain current".

Though discovered by Spanish Conquistadors in Central and South America, the tomato did not enjoy widespread use until after 1800.  It was also thought to be poisonous and an aphrodisiac and was called the "Love apple".  Highly varied in shape and color, it was grown as an ornamental in European gardens and was considered poisonous.  Closely related to the deadly nightshade, some varieties probably did contain toxic alkaloids.  Therefore, traditional Eastern NC sauces did not contain tomato.  Salt, pepper, capsicum peppers, vinegar and sugar or molasses were readily available and became the dominant sauce ingredients.

Tom Soloman, one of the original participants on the old Thead BBQ Mailing List, suggested that seafood may have been included in the original sauces; The ancient Romans made Liquamin from salted and fermented anchovies.  Crabs were used in the Caribbean pepper pots and some early ketchups were made from oysters.  He started putting Nuok Mam in his sauces and liked it so much that fish sauce started showing up in most of the recipes he posted.

I think it is stretching things a bit to suggest that barbecue was a North Carolina invention or innovation, though the art was probably perfected there.  Pigs thrived on the plentiful acorns and were well liked by the early settlers.  In fact, William Byrd in The History of the Dividing Line said they ate so much pig meat that it filled them with gross humours.

The Western parts of North and South Carolina and Georgia were settled mostly down the valleys from North to South rather than East West and therefore had an entirely different food heritage from the Eastern seaboard.  Though influenced by the well established Eastern methods, Scotch-Irish and Germanic settlers also learned from the Indians and developed their own barbecue traditions which eventually included more sugar and tomato in their sauces.

Dan Gill's Web Site

Top of Page

Leonard Lehew

I think it is fair to say that the meaning of the word "barbecue" has been hotly debated.  People who frequent this group are more likely than most to have strong opinions on the subject.  The word is used in many ways.  Some people seem to be happy applying the term to any cooked meat with some kind of a spicy sauce.  However, many of us feel that boiled meat with grocery store sauce is so far from the traditional meaning of the term and from the traditional quality of the result that it doesn't deserve to be called "barbecue".

"Traditions" vary in different parts of the country.  Eastern North Carolina has a long tradition in this regard.  Here, pork is "properly" cooked slowly over direct heat from wood coals, much as Ginger has described.  This imparts a delicate, slightly smoky flavor to the meat that in my experience cannot be achieved in other ways.  This is the method that has been used for years by the many barbecue "joints" here.  But cooking this way is time consuming and expensive.  Sadly, most of the barbecue places, even around here, have switched to using gas to cook their product.  And just as sadly, most people seem satisfied to eat this anemic imitation of the original and call it "barbecue".  I fear that before too many years, you will only be able to find "real" barbecue in back yards and private pits.

This is not merely a matter of semantics.  By broadening our definition to include almost any kind of spiced, cooked meat, we rob the term of any useful meaning, and we obscure the rich traditions associated with this style of cooking.

Your original post struck me as the kind of "politically correct" nonsense that says in effect,  "There are no standards; therefore, anything you want to call barbecue, is barbecue".

The truth is that the horse is already out of the barn on this one.  Not only is the term applied to all kinds of products, it has also come to mean the same thing as "grilling".  At least in this newsgroup, you can find people with an appreciation of how good properly prepared barbecue can be and people happy to debate in a generally friendly way just what the term should mean.

I for one will continue to do my part by cooking barbecue the traditional way and by seeking out and patronizing the hand full of restaurants that do the same.

Cheers,  Leonard

Top of Page

Ted Tewkesbury

Cooking Q over an open flame is bogus, period.  To put it another way, the combustion of pure lignin is, a priori, the cooking method for BBQ.

But forget for a moment what we've all learned and have been taught on that score.  This is one of the few areas where the traditional methods are born out by the simple taste test, my favorite standard for what's good to eat and what's not.

Flames come from the combustion, or rapid oxidation, of the wood sugars—the cellulose and the hemi-cellulose.  These substances volatilize more quickly than the lignin, hence the flames, and as they do, their less than perfect combustion leaves a tarry, kerosene-like residue on the meat.  We've all tasted it, and that's why we've tasted it.

So, we've got one of those rare instances where tradition is important not because it's tradition, but because it showcases a lesson learned the hard way where it counts -- on the tongue.

It's been said that the one thing we learn from history is that people don't learn from history, and this thread, or the need for it, is a prime example.  I say that if people are stupid enough to cook Q over an open flame, they deserve the taste sensation it produces.  I can only hope that culinary Darwinism works quickly, and that this ill-advised and aberrant practice of cooking BBQ over an open flame vanishes with the proponents of such a flawed approach.


Top of Page