Barbecue is a tradition dating back through antiquity and has become synonymous with American cuisines. Most historians believe the word barbecue derives from 'barabicu' originating from the Taino people of the Caribbean and the Timucua Indians of Florida. It's believed that after the Spanish landed in the Caribbean the word entered the English lexicon in the form of 'barbacoa' as Spanish settlers returned to Europe. The first recorded use of the term 'barbacoa' is dated to 1697 by the British buccaneer William Dampier, by The Oxford English Dictionary. However, in 1672, the term 'barbecue' appeared in its traditional form in the writings of John Lederer detailing his travels through the American southeast.
When it comes to "real" barbecue, just throwing some meat on the grill is NOT barbecue. Barbacoa translates as 'sacred fire pit.' Traditional barbecue involved digging a hole in the ground and placing a wooden structure above the pit. A pot was placed inside the pit to capture juices from the animal, which was then used for soups and stews. Whole goats or pigs, depending on what animal was prevalent, were placed on the wooden structure and slow-cooked or smoked for several hours over indirect heat. This practice of cooking the whole animal led to a wide misconception of the origins for barbecue, as the French called this method 'barbe a queue,' meaning "from head to tail". Herbs and spices were used to not only add auxiliary flavor to the meat, but such herbs as the "cassareep" (derived from the root of the cassava plant) helped preserve the food from spoiling in the heat of the tropics. But of course, these ancient civilizations did not only barbecue meat. Fish and vegetables were also commonly cooked on the 'barbacoa' to go along with the prize of the hunt.
Barbecue is believed to have moved to America when Spanish settlers came to Santa Elena in what is now South Carolina in the early 16th century. The Spanish introduced the pig to Americans and American-Indians, and in turn the Indians introduced the process of slow-cooked meats to the Europeans. The pigs quickly became feral, multiplied, and were widely abundant. Due to their prevalence in the region, pork became the primary meat at barbecues. Prior to the American Civil War, for every one pound of beef southerners ate, pork was consumed five times as much. The effort to capture and kill these wild hogs was extensive and when accomplished, the slaughter became a time for celebration. Often the entire neighborhood was invited to share the rewards of the hunt. In Cajun cultures, these gatherings are called 'boucheries,' derived from the French 'boucane' (in turn derived from the Arawak Indians of the Caribbean word 'buccan'), and 'boucanier,' a word used for hunters who smoked meat over a wooden frame. English colonists anglicized the word 'boucanier' to 'buccaneer'. With these large 'boucheries' serving up so much food at once, the American barbecue was born.
As this culinary art became more popular, certain regional styles were established: Memphis, Carolinas, Kansas City, and Texas. But as barbecue migrated to the northern American cities from the south, many more styles have come to be known, including California and Hawaii-style barbecue. By its very nature, barbecue is malleable to your needs, to your tastes, and near limitless when it comes to style and cooking. It's hard to claim one style as the best. To quote this TIME magazine article, "Locals defend their regions cooking style with the sort of fierce loyalty usually reserved for die-hard sports fans. Just as you're better off not mentioning the Yankees to a Red Sox fan, it's probably best not to proclaim your love for Texas beef to anyone from Tennessee."
The rich cultural history of barbecue in the United States has been bringing people, families, and communities together for centuries, strengthening bonds of friendship and brotherhood throughout the world.