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Smoke Signals: From 'barbracot' to big business

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I wonder what the Taino Indians of the 15th century would make of the thing we call a barbecue.

The Taino inhabited what was the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic and Haiti. When Columbus and other early European explorers stumbled upon their New World, they found the Taino cooking fish and meat on a frame of green sticks on wooden legs over an open fire. The Taino called the contraption a barbracot. The Spanish gave the word a phonetic twist, barbacoa, and the English did the same, barbecue.

That is the most generally accepted of the several origin theories for American barbecue.
The notion that the word “barbecue” originates from the French barbe a queue, meaning “from beard to tail,” to describe the cooking of a whole pig, is largely discounted. Another theory, that barbecue was a form of cannibalism practiced by the Carib Indians, is considered at best a misunderstanding by the Europeans and at worst a deliberate falsehood intended to scare rivals away.

The one thing not in doubt is the Taino use of the wooden frame to smoke and grill their catch. That simple frame and practice has led to today’s cultural phenomenon.

Google the word “barbecue” and you get, “About 28,700,000 results.” (I love the “about,” as if the true number is incalculable.) Barbecue has become not just big business, but huge, pawning scores of best-selling cookbooks, a multitude of grilling/smoking classes, and countless cookoffs. The once-lowly food now has its own reality-TV show, TLC’s “BBQ Pitmasters,” which begins its second season on Aug. 10 with Art Smith, chef/owner of Washington’s Art and Soul restaurant, as one of the three judges.

The Memphis in May barbecue contest, one of the country’s most prestigious cook-offs, began with 20 teams cooking on old barrel-type smokers, without fireboxes. This year, there were 248 teams, and most of the cookers were architectural marvels.

The Kansas City Barbecue Society, a sanctioning body that provides rules for judging barbecue cookoffs, has gone from overseeing three contests when founded 24 years ago to 325 today. “Barbecue now is what Nascar was in the ‘50s,” KCBS executive director Carolyn Wells says.

But whereas only a few hundred people are truly capable of driving a car at some 200 miles per hour, millions can cook barbecue. Over the weekend, I talked to a Wall Street investor who has three smokers on his penthouse balcony in Manhattan.

The slow-food movement and the search for authenticity in modern life, along with more than a dash of marketing and technological advancement in smoker design, has led to what might be called the gentrification of barbecue.

What started out as a fire in a hole in the ground that smoked some meat on a patchwork of green branches is now a smoker made of quarter-inch steel with a huge adjustable-vent firebox, complete with its own grill, and a cooking chamber modified with baffles to direct the air and a reverse-flow chimney. And that isn’t to say anything of the wood-burning gas oven or the wood-smoking electric cooker.

My new monthly column and weekly blog will give you the lowdown on where barbecue has been and where it is going. It will provide recipes, tips, practical advice and, at the same time, examine the political, economic and cultural aspects of what is the sport, art and cuisine known as barbecue.

For next week’s blog post, I’ll do a q/a. If you have questions about today’s story about rigs, write them in the comments below and come back next week for some answers. Till then, happy smokin’.

-- Jim Shahin

By The Food Section  |  July 21, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Smoke Signals  | Tags: Jim Shahin, barbecue  
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Comments

You failed to mention pirates of the Caribbean in reference to brabe. They were called buccaneers.

Google it.

Posted by: sheepherder | July 21, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

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