An excerpt from An Irresistible History of Southern Food, copyright 2011by Rick McDaniel
Barbecue: Nature’s Most Perfect Food
Barbecue is one of the South’s most beloved foods and has long played an important role in the foodways of the region.
As much as we Southerners love our country ham, tenderloin biscuits and smothered pork chops, we will run over them all to get to a plate of barbecue. It is a subject that is guaranteed to get two people from different parts of the South into a spirited discussion ending in either a lifelong friendship or a fistfight.
Almost everywhere in the region, but especially in North Carolina, barbecue is spoken of in the reverential tone usually reserved for ’65 Mustang convertibles, large bass that slipped the line and the cheerleader everyone was in love with in high school.
The word barbecue more than likely entered the English language via the Spanish, who observed native people in the West Indies using a method of slowly cooking meat over coals they called barbacoa. Native Americans were cooking meat over coals using essentially the same method as the West Indian peoples, and the English settlers who set up shop in the South were soon happily cooking pigs over hot coals.
The typical method for barbecuing a hog was to dig a pit or trench and build a hardwood fire in it. After the fire had burned down to coals, the hog was placed on poles or a sheet of corrugated iron laid across the trench. Barbecue made by this method came to be known as “pit cooked,” and the term is still in use today. Even in modern barbecue restaurants where the hole in the ground has been replaced with concrete block cookers, they are still called pits, and the person who is the head cook is called the pit master or pit boss.
In the modern South, the word barbecue is most often used as a noun, as in a plate of barbecue. It is rarely used as a verb, as in “we barbecued a pig.” Most people who do so simply say they cooked a pig, with the cooking method implied. In a final note on usage, nothing will mark someone as a barbecue novice and possible Yankee spy quicker than referring to a grill as a barbecue or using the term in any connotation when referring to cooking hamburgers or hot dogs.