From Barbacoa to Barbecue



The smell of chopped pork roasted over a fire, with its rich, charcoal, meaty aroma that teases the nose, evokes memories of a powerful food tradition for many Southerners.

For 15th century Spanish explorers, that smell was a sensation they probably first encountered when they began exploring the Americas and interacting with the indigenous people.

That was the first time Europeans used the word barbacoa, a word that would later evolve into our beloved barbecue.

The practice of smoking pork, chicken and beef for hours over a wood fire and serving it with a distinct regional sauce is, for many in the South, a religious ritual. Humans have been roasting meat over fire since fire was discovered, but Southern barbecue is more than simply smoked meat. The ways the South cooks and eats barbecue carry a sense of tradition, heritage and discipline for those who grew up with it.

While there are dozens of different origin stories that are all true for particular groups of people, it should be acknowledged that Native Americans played a significant role in its development.

When explorers and European settlers came to America, survival was a challenge. To adapt to life in the New World, they had to adopt native foodways, says Brent Burgin, Native American studies instructor at the University of South Carolina at Lancaster.

“America didn’t have pork until the Spanish brought them over, same with cattle,” Burgin says. “But they didn’t know how to survive without help from the natives.”

Spanish explorers used the word barbacoa to describe large outdoor grills among the native people.

“When you look at the etymology of it, it doesn’t seem like the Spanish had seen that sort of thing before observing indigenous people doing it,” says Malinda Lowery, a Native American studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It is very likely that the Spanish prepared their pigs using the native practice of barbacoa, Lowery says. This practice would later turn into Southern barbecue; Spanish people cooking Spanish meat with an indigenous method.

“Indigenous people are always left out of this narrative,” she says. “It reinforces the idea that America was just an empty place and there was no one here to teach settlers how to cook meat.”

Native Americans also played a role in the development of the side orders served at barbecue restaurants.

Many side orders commonly seen in barbecue restaurants, such as hush puppies, grits, cornbread or beans, are foods that are indigenous to the Americas.

“While the techniques innovated by the native people are essential to what we consider distinct about Southern barbecue, where the ingredients were brought over by the Europeans, the accompaniments are true in the reverse,” Lowery says. “Many of the ingredients are from the Americas but prepared with European techniques.”

Hush puppies, for example, are balls of fried cornmeal, essential to a barbecue meal in the Carolinas. They couldn’t exist, though, without the maize cultivated by the Native Americans thousands of years before the Europeans came over, Lowery says.

Many of these ingredients wouldn’t exist without native cultivation.

– Malinda Lowery

The same is true with squash, pepper, many kinds of beans and the potato.

All of these ingredients, now commonplace in Southern meals, were first developed and eaten by the indigenous people of the Americas.

“We tend to forget that many of these ingredients wouldn’t exist without native cultivation,” Lowery says.

Certainly, many different factors influenced the emergence of barbecue as the cultural force that it is today, but to appreciate its history, you must first look at Native American practices that existed centuries before the debate between Texas and Carolina barbecue.