Barbecue Digest: If it happens in the backyard, is it barbecue?
July 26th, 2012
05:32 PM ET
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Editor's note: All summer long, the Southern Foodways Alliance will be delving deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of barbecue across the United States. Dig in.

The proper use of the word "barbecue" is a topic that stirs regional passions. Folks from northern climes think nothing of saying, "Come over this afternoon and we'll barbecue some brats."

Such a usage jars the ears of Southerners and can launch them into long speechifying on how barbecue is a noun, not a verb, and that you can only create such a noun by slow-roasting meat on a wood-fired pit.

Historically, though, there is a direct link between the backyard barbecue and the pit tradition. In the 1920s, popular magazines ran articles describing outdoor barbecues in the South and West. They instructed readers on how to stage similar events at home—the first step was to dig a hole in the yard. In the 1930s, more affluent families began to install outdoor brick "barbecues" - more sophisticated fireplace than lowly pit.

During World War II, the backyard barbecue became popular with all social classes. In an era of gas and food rationing, it offered, as the New York Herald Tribune put it, "an economic means of entertainment al fresco." Manufacturers introduced barbecue grills, which evolved from simple braziers to more elaborate devices like the Weber kettle. To fit the smaller scale of a single family, pork shoulders gave way to chops and steaks, which in turn led to hamburgers and hotdogs. Wood was replaced by lump charcoal, which later was replaced by charcoal briquettes and, eventually, natural gas.

By the 1950s, the backyard barbecue was an entrenched symbol of the good life in America, though not everyone was happy about it."Many Georgia epicures insist that this is an insult to the honorable name of barbecue," Rufus Jarman wrote in The Saturday Evening Post in 1954. "You cannot barbecue hamburgers, roasting ears, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, or salami, and it is a shame and a disgrace to mention barbecue in connection with such foolishness.

Almost sixty years later, that issue still isn't resolved.

Today's installment comes courtesy of Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper and author of "Barbecue: the History of an American Institution". Follow him on Twitter at @mossr.

Delve into more barbecue goodness from the Southern Foodways Alliance blog

Previously - A most disgraceful scene at the Monster Democratic Rally and Cook the opossum, spare the bear



soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. T McG

    I am a classically trained EX chef but had never made ribs until about a month ago. I've eaten all sorts of BBQ (TX, NC, KC, whatever) and I love it all. Anyway, the ribs I made the other day were by FAR the best I have ever had. Why? Because of the French techniques I use. Talk about overrated. One just need know a few basic cooking principles to make good BBQ. Although I love it, it is extremely simple. it's just too basic to nit pick over what different regions call it. (and if your "sauce" involves ketchup in any way, just go away) Make me a hollandaise or a good demi-glace if you want to impress me.

    July 28, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply
    • BBQ Bob

      If your BBQ involves French anything, it is NOT BBQ! By your own admission, you lack experience with BBQ, having only started a month ago. PLEASE TAKE YOUR FRENCH PANSY COOKING AND RAM IT UP YOUR DERRIERE!!!!

      July 28, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Reply
      • JellyBean

        "Just shut up and eat."

        July 30, 2012 at 8:15 am | Reply
        • Animal Eater

          No place for French cooking techniques in BBQ unless you're at an "all boys" picnic in San Francisco. In the South, you would be laughed out of town for that kind of pansy cooking.

          July 30, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Mike

      You sound French. Idiot...

      July 30, 2012 at 7:38 am | Reply
  2. J-cooker

    Grill foods that you want quickly, steak/burgers/dogs/bratwurst. Smoke/slow cook meat that will become barbeque. Eat barbeque on a plate/bun with friends and family. It's really not that hard is it?
    Which word you use also connotes time allotment, Grilling = relative short term, whereas Smoking/pit cooking takes many hours.
    The end result really is letting people know what kind of alcohol to bring, politely. Grilling is beer, smoking/pit cooking is bourbon.
    Being able to understand the context is more important that what you call it, unless you live in the South, where it's best to have a grasp of local tradition.
    Go outside, start a fire, and cook on it!

    Bon Appetit

    July 28, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  3. Texas Eater

    People in Texas eat Real Barbeque.

    July 28, 2012 at 12:21 am | Reply
  4. Kingsford C. Coal

    BBQ. Beers, Brisket, & Quichyerbellyakin. Low & Slow, the only way to go. Anything you can cook in less than 2-3 hours is GRILLED. Period.

    July 27, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Reply
  5. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    TGIF. Turn it up this Friday morning!:

    July 27, 2012 at 10:40 am | Reply
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      Oops. Wrong thread.

      July 27, 2012 at 10:40 am | Reply
    • david orford

      of course it is as long as you put BBQ sauce on it, any fool knows that....

      July 27, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  6. Carn E. Vore

    Who cares? Cook something tasty and share the meal with good friends and family. Call it a Festivus dinner or a hootenany if you want. It's a sad result of our increasingly fragmented society that we get so obsessively hung up on labels.

    July 27, 2012 at 9:52 am | Reply
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      Happy Festivus, Jerry!

      July 27, 2012 at 10:26 am | Reply
      • Carn E. Vore

        The Feats of Strength this year will consist of lifting racks of ribs to our mouths.

        July 27, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  7. Hans Susser

    In my humble opinion, these days' the word BBQ means different things to different people.
    I have lately come to the conclusion that to the majority of folk's BBQ describes a social gathering of one or more people, The main purpose is to cook out in the open, enjoy the weather, food and company. (Even BBQ restaurant's used to cook their food outside).
    Since each region, restaurant, family and grill cook swears that their version (smoking, grilling, open fire, covered grill, etc) is the gospel, describing BBQ as a cooking method seems to me rather futile.
    However, I had many a chef getting his / her knickers in a twist discussing what BBQ actually and REALLY means, so I just accept whatever is the explanation of the day. ( Even the origin of the word Barbecue seems to have different proponents).
    If I take my classical french training into consideration,you have the cooking methods :
    Grilling (never covered), Smoking (always covered) Jerking ( a combination cooking metod, since we grill, smoke and steam at the same time) and "the way of Life BBQ", where we use any cooking method traditionally employed in our area and / or backyard, invite a bunch of friend's and family over and have smoked, grilled, jerked food, maybe a barrel of beer and lot's of fun.
    BBQ – happy cooking outside, whichever way, as long as you are having fun ! Live is Good !

    July 27, 2012 at 5:52 am | Reply
  8. Hans Susser

    In my humble opinion, these days' the word BBQ means different things to different people.
    I have lately come to the conclusion that to the majority of folk's BBQ describes a social gathering of one or more people, The main purpose is to cook out in the open, enjoy the weather, food and company.
    Since each region, restaurant, family and grill cook swears that their version (smoking, grilling, open fire, covered grill, etc) is the gospel, describing BBQ as a cooking method seems to me rather futile.
    However, I had many a chef getting his / her knickers in a twist discussing what BBQ actually and REALLY means, so I just accept whatever is the explanation of the day. ( Even the origin of the word Barbecue seems to have different proponents).
    If I take my classical french training into consideration,you have the cooking methods :
    Grilling (never covered), Smoking (always covered) Jerking ( a combination cooking metod, since we grill, smoke and steam at the same time) and "the way of Life BBQ", where we use any cooking method traditionally employed in our area and / or backyard, invite a bunch of friend's and family over and have smoked, grilled, jerked food, maybe a barrel of beer and lot's of fun.
    BBQ – happy cooking outside, whichever way, as long as you are having fun ! Live is Good !

    July 27, 2012 at 5:49 am | Reply
  9. okok

    Then word barbecuing is a gerund.

    July 26, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Reply
  10. Bo

    I love BBQ. The only good BBQ is done in your backyard or you neighbors backyard. For years, I have been in search of good BBQ. I have tried BBQ restaurants, joints, and "award winning BBQ restaurants" only to be disapointed and frustrated. I have learned this much: if the the BBQ is avdvertised as "fall of the bone", that is a red flag, stay away. If the meat falls off the bone it is overcooked or cooked in a crock pot. Tasted like tofu. You end up picking pieces of bone and gristel out of your mouth. I know there must be a good BBQ restaurant out there, and I contiue to look. But hands down, if you want good BBQ, cook it yourself. Backyard rules.

    July 26, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Reply
  11. Bob

    grilling meat nice

    July 26, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  12. Walker, Austin

    As long as it tastes good I don't give a dam what you call it. So shut your pie holes and eat!

    July 26, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Reply
  13. Mick

    If it's a nice cut of meat like a good steak or a pork tenderloin, I'll throw it on the propane grill (with wood chips, of course). If it's a lesser, fattier cut like a pork shoulder or brisket, it gets slow cooked in the smoker (also propane). I would take issue with any Southerner who says he can do better with his fancy-schmancy wood-fired pit. In fact, I would challenge such a person to send me his best efforts so that I could judge for myself. Go ahead, do it. And cole slaw – send some cole slaw too. And a good Cabernet.

    July 26, 2012 at 9:16 pm | Reply
  14. Sam (Texas)

    I have the same sentiment as most. If you are trying to cook hamburgers, hotdogs, brats, etc. – you are grilling. If you are putting in a 10-20 lb brisket or something like that and cooking for hours using real wood – then you are partaking in BBQ, especially if you make your own sauce and invite me over

    July 26, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  15. Nick Naranja

    There is a difference between BBQing and grilling. BBQ is smoky, indirect heat and it takes a while to cook it. Real BBQ is whole hog.

    July 26, 2012 at 8:58 pm | Reply
  16. Mona

    I have never heard barbecue used as a verb in the northern states, it's always a noun. No one says brats either, I would assume someone was of sick of their kids and wanted to do them in if they said that sentence. There have been so many versions of barbecues in the Americas, one of the oldest is called a pachamanca. Hamburgers would be a waste, but larger meats, corn, potatoes and much more are traditionally used. Really anything can go. Someone's opinion from the 50s vs hundreds of years of tradition, there's no comparison, cook what you want.

    July 26, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Reply
  17. Aaron

    Barbecue cannot be done fast and hot......thats grilling. barbecue is low and slow

    July 26, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Reply
    • Kingsford C. Coal

      You got it right. No need to debate. Only Yankees would call a grill a barbecue. BBQ calls for real wood, real meat, and real men to tend the pit while the women make a quilt and gossip. (and bring us beer so we don't have to leave the pit).

      July 27, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Reply
  18. jeff

    Amateur blogger here... I talked about this issue in two of my blog posts:
    http://www.drinkingwhale.com/my-america-2-fire-cooked-lamb-chops/
    http://www.drinkingwhale.com/my-america-barbecued-lamb-tacos/

    July 26, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
  19. Jay

    of course you can barbecue in the backyard. where else would you use your barbeque smoker? Inside your house?

    July 26, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
  20. nepawoods

    Of course you can do barbecue in your back yard. Real barbecue. And yes, some people use the word to mean anything grilled outdoors, and have never tasted a slow cooked brisket or pork butt.

    July 26, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Reply

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