History of Black barbecues in the United States

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Last weekend, millions of Americans enjoyed a three-day weekend as the nation celebrated yet another birthday. For some, Independence Day is simply another day off from work. For others, it is a day to turn on the grill, heat up the fire pit and get to making some barbecue chicken or ribs. These communal gatherings are so pivotal to bringing together Black communities and families annually. With that said, it can be easy to forget how this cooking style came to be and how these celebrations became a staple within Black communities across the world.

Where did the word “barbecue” come from?

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Young students across the country are often taught the following rhyme: In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. While this statement is correct, many young students are deceived into thinking that Columbus first stopped in what is now known as America. Instead, he made his way to the Caribbean. While there, he found a group of Taínos slow-cooking meat on wooden frames. The indigenous tribe explained to Columbus that the cooking technique was called barbacoa. Sound familiar?

How did barbecue become common in America?

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As Columbus and other foreign settlers made their way through the Caribbean and North America, they found other Taínos in the Caribbean, Powhatans in North America and various groups using similar meat smoking techniques. Ultimately, they began taking different aspects of cooking from different tribes and using them for themselves.

By the time the Revolutionary War had taken place, barbecuing was fairly common in America. However, the practice did not truly spread across the country until the transatlantic slave trade took off. Author Jim Auchmutey explains that “barbecue and slavery took root in America at about the same time, and they spread across the South in tandem.” In the 19th century, barbecues and cookouts were used as social gatherings for white Americans, but enslaved Black Americans were forced to do the hard labor to make them happen. In fact, barbecues became so popular that President Andrew Jackson started to host his own so that he could gather others to promote his own political policies.

Over time, the nation expanded and Black Americans began to take barbecuing to new areas. Culinary historian Jessica B. Harris explains that “as Black barbecue masters spread across the South and Midwest, their mop sauce evolved, and so did their marinades, rubs, and barbecue sauces.” To this day, Black elders are still experimenting with different spices and techniques. Most importantly, they are also passing along these traditions to younger generations. As a result, the cooking techniques that originated in the 15th century extend into the 21st century and bring friends and families together.

What is the difference between a cookout and a barbecue?

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The words cookout and barbecue are often used interchangeably. However, there are a few key differences. Cookouts often involve burgers and hotdogs. Meanwhile, barbecues cand include chicken, ribs and other cooked meats. The celebrations and gatherings tied to cookouts and barbecues are often similar. The cooking process and food options are just a bit different.

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