Historically Speaking: The Many Ingredients of Barbecue

Native Americans, European settlers and African slaves all contributed to creating an American culinary tradition.

The Wall Street Journal

August 18, 2023

There are more than 30,000 BBQ joints in the U.S., but as far as the Michelin Guide is concerned, not one of them is worthy of a coveted star. Many Americans would say that the fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves but in the stars.

A 1562 illustration shows Timucua Indians roasting animals on a raised wooden platform, the original form of barbecuing.

The American barbecue—cooking meat with an indirect flame at low temperature over seasoned wood or charcoal—is a centuries-old tradition. (Using the term for any kind of outdoor grilling came much later.) Like America itself, it is a cultural hybrid. Indigenous peoples in the Caribbean and the Americas would place a whole animal carcass on a wooden platform several feet above a fire and let the smoke do the cooking. The first Spanish arrivals were fascinated by the technique, and translated a native word for the platform as “barbacoa.”

Lyndon B. Johnson (right) and Hubert Humphrey celebrate their election victory with barbecue, November 1964.

The Europeans began to barbecue pigs and cattle, non-native animals that easily adapted to the New World. Another important culinary contribution—using a ground trench instead of a raised platform—may have been spread by African slaves. The 18th century African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano described seeing the Miskito of Honduras, a mixed community of Indians and Africans, barbecue an alligator: “Their manner of roasting is by digging a hole in the earth, and filling it with wood, which they burn to coal, and then they lay sticks across, on which they set the meat.”

European basting techniques also played a role. The most popular recipes for barbecue sauce reflect historic patterns of immigration to the U.S.: British colonists used a simple concoction of vinegar and spices, French émigrés insisted on butter, and German settlers preferred their native mustard. In the American West, two New World ingredients, tomatoes and molasses, formed the basis of many sauces. The type of meat became another regional difference: pork was more plentiful in the South, beef in the West.

Although labor-intensive, a barbecued whole hog can feed up to 150 people, making it the ideal food for communal gatherings. In 1793, President George Washington celebrated the laying of the cornerstone for the Capitol building with an enormous barbecue featuring a 500-pound ox.

In the South before the Civil War, a barbecue meant a hog cooked by slaves. The choicest cuts from the pig’s back went to the grandees, hence the phrase “living high on the hog.” Emancipation brought about a culinary reckoning; Southern whites wanting a barbecue had to turn to cookbooks, such as “Mrs Hill’s New Cook Book,” published in 1867 for “inexperienced Southern housekeepers…in this peculiar crisis of our domestic as well as national affairs.”

In the 20th century, the slower rate of urbanization outside the North helped to keep the outdoor barbecue alive. As a Texan, President Lyndon B. Johnson used “barbecue diplomacy” to project a folksy image, breaking with the refined European style of the Kennedys to endear himself to ordinary Americans. The ingredients in Lady Bird Johnson’s barbecue sauce embraced as many regional varieties as possible by including butter, ketchup and vinegar.

Commercial BBQ sauces, which first became available in 1909, offer a convenient substitute for making your own. But for most people, to experience real barbecue requires that other quintessentially American pastime, the road trip. Just leave the Michelin Guide at home.

WSJ Historically Speaking: Undying Defeat: The Power of Failed Uprisings

From the Warsaw Ghetto to the Alamo, doomed rebels live on in culture

John Wayne said that he saw the Alamo as ‘a metaphor for America’. PHOTO: ALAMY

Earlier this month, Israel commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943. The annual Remembrance Day of the Holocaust and Heroism, as it is called, reminds Israelis of the moral duty to fight to the last.

The Warsaw ghetto battle is one of many doomed uprisings across history that have cast their influence far beyond their failures, providing inspiration to a nation’s politics and culture.

Nearly 500,000 Polish Jews once lived in the ghetto. By January 1943, the Nazis had marked the surviving 55,000 for deportation. The Jewish Fighting Organization had just one machine gun and fewer than a hundred revolvers for a thousand or so sick and starving volunteer soldiers. The Jews started by blowing up some tanks and fought on until May 16. The Germans executed 7,000 survivors and deported the rest.

For many Jews, the rebellion offered a narrative of resistance, an alternative to the grim story of the fortress of Masada, where nearly 1,000 besieged fighters chose suicide over slavery during the First Jewish-Roman War (A.D. 66–73).
The story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising has also entered the wider culture. The title of Leon Uris’s 1961 novel “Mila 18” comes from the street address of the headquarters of the Jewish resistance in their hopeless fight. Four decades later, Roman Polanski made the uprising a crucial part of his 2002 Oscar-winning film, “The Pianist,” whose musician hero aids the effort.

Other doomed uprisings have also been preserved in art. The 48-hour Paris Uprising of 1832, fought by 3,000 insurrectionists against 30,000 regular troops, gained immortality through Victor Hugo, who made the revolt a major plot point in “Les Misérables” (1862). The novel was a hit on its debut and ever after—and gave its world-wide readership a set of martyrs to emulate.

Even a young country like the U.S. has its share of national myths, of desperate last stands serving as touchstones for American identity. One has been the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 during the War of Texas Independence. “Remember the Alamo” became the Texan war cry only weeks after roughly 200 ill-equipped rebels, among them the frontiersman Davy Crockett, were killed defending the Alamo mission in San Antonio against some 2,000 Mexican troops.

The Alamo’s imagery of patriotic sacrifice became popular in novels and paintings but really took off during the film era, beginning in 1915 with the D.W. Griffith production, “Martyrs of the Alamo.” Walt Disney got in on the act with his 1950s TV miniseries, “ Davy Crockett : King of the Wild Frontier.” John Wayne’s 1960 “The Alamo,” starring Wayne as Crockett, immortalized the character for a generation.

Wayne said that he saw the Alamo as “a metaphor of America” and its will for freedom. Others did too, even in very different contexts. During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson, whose hometown wasn’t far from San Antonio, once told the National Security Council why he believed U.S. troops needed to be fighting in Southeast Asia: “Hell,” he said, “Vietnam is just like the Alamo.”