The origins of barbecue are murky. Both the transformation from the word “barbacoa” and the development of the cooking process are widely accepted as having come from the Taíno people Christoper Columbus first encountered in present-day Haiti.
In an article updated earlier this year, Smithsonian magazine succinctly described barbecue’s journey, saying that, “[as] the Spanish explorers who followed Columbus turned their expeditions north, they brought the cooking technique with them . . . Eventually, the technique made its way to the colonies, traveling as far north as Virginia.” I made a similar account in one of my own articles a decade ago. After much research, author Joseph R. Haynes explains why we’ve got it all wrong in his new book, From Barbycu to Barbecue: The Untold History of an American Tradition.
Haynes contends barbecue is an American invention, born in the soil of what is now the United States. It’s a subject he began to address in his first book, Virginia Barbecue: A History, but in his new work, Haynes emphatically dismisses what he calls the Caribbean Origins Theory (COT). Instead, he claims, “[barbecue] was born after enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619 from West Africa. Eventually, enslaved people of African descent, along with people of European descent, and others of American Indian descent combined their cooking traditions and created what we today call southern barbecue.”
This is not an erasure of the term “barbacoa” and its documented connection to the Taíno method of cooking and drying meats with fire. Spaniards used the word to describe the wooden structure built to hold meat over a fire, but not to describe the product or the method of cooking. The word “barbacoa” was also more generic, and didn’t have an exclusive connection with cooking equipment. It could mean a scaffold raised above the ground for purposes as varied as storing grain or using as a bed or couch.
A barbacoa was also a structure used by native chiefs to hide treasure, which is why conquistadors were so interested in finding them. More importantly, the term wasn’t used then as a verb, and hasn’t evolved to be used that way today. Just like you don’t “oven” a cake, you don’t “barbacoa” a cow head. “Barbacoa” may be the root word for “barbecue,” but no one “barbecued” anything until the practice of cooking over a trench in the ground began in what is now the U.S.
Haynes tracks the evolution of the term barbecue. It was first used, at least phonetically (it was spelled “barbycu”), in a text by Englishman Richard Ligon in 1657 to describe a platform used to store sugarcane near a mill in Barbados, similar to the way “barbacoa” would have been used by Spanish explorers. “No accounts of [barbecue] being used as a verb has been found in literature earlier than 1661,” Haynes writes, referring to the description by another English author, probably Edmund Plowden, of the stick structure Indigenous people near the Chesapeake Bay used to dry and smoke fish. Plowden called the process “barbecado,” which combined “barbycu” and the English word “carbonado,” which referred to both grilled meat and grilling meat.
“Around the turn of the eighteenth century, the word barbecue, and its variants, started to show up in literature referring to carcasses cooked over hot coals or cooked in earth ovens,” Haynes writes. He then notes it was always used to describe the food, or an event where it was served, in the U.S. Haynes contends it was confined to this uniquely American cooking method because southern barbecue was a Creolization of cooking cultures, and was invented independently in several different areas in the south through knowledge shared among African Americans, Native Americans, and Europeans.
Together, they developed what Haynes calls the Original Southern Barbecuing Technique (OSBT), which is a method of barbecue using wood burnt down to coals in a pit or trench, and whole animals or large cuts of meat cooked directly over that fire while being mopped with a thin, acidic sauce. Haynes then shows through his research that during the period between when Europeans brought enslaved Africans to the Americas and the end of Reconstruction, the OSBT was the only barbecue style in the world to utilize a pit or trench dug into the earth that remained open during cooking.
There’s some speculation on Haynes’s part to describe just how the Creolization he describes actually happened. “Maybe some well-educated people can look at this stuff and be able to weed through what’s right and what’s wrong,” he told me during a recent conversation. But the most important part of his extensive research is debunking the many myths that the barbecue community has generally accepted to explain its origin.
“We’re never going to move this needle forward unless we look at primary sources,” Haynes told me. He described the many historical texts and resources often cited as evidence of southern barbecue’s Caribbean roots as a ball of Christmas lights that needed untangling. During his research, he brought in two friends, one fluent in Spanish and another in French, to read through both old and contemporary resources. His book also went through an extensive peer-review process.
In the book, Haynes methodically dismantles many of the texts that gave credence to the COT. Ned Ward’s 1707 account of a pig cooked in London in the “West-India Manner” entitled The Barbacue Feast is foundational to the COT. Ward was a satirist with no first-hand knowledge of barbecue in the Americas or in the Caribbean at the time. After careful examination, Haynes describes Ward’s essay as “a litany of insults packaged in eighteenth-century slang directed at Native Americans, enslaved Africans, Jews, Scots, the Welsh, and a fictitious group of drunken sailors who were depicted as barbecuing three pigs under an apple tree.” Haynes then notes that many sources produced soon after (often considered reliable to amateur historians) simply parrot Ward’s inaccuracies.
If you’re skeptical, I understand. Everything you’ve probably ever read about the origin of American barbecue draws a connection straight back to wooden racks in the Caribbean. Haynes lays out all of his research to the contrary in a manner I found convincing, and sometimes exhausting. Haynes’s thoroughness will be comforting to barbecue and history nerds alike, but the book wasn’t written to be a page-turner. He doesn’t leave a chapter without hammering home his point from every angle, which is why I say with confidence that anyone planning to write seriously about the history of barbecue shouldn’t take on the task without first reading, and then referencing, From Barbycu to Barbecue.
While we talked, I had to ask Haynes about his thoughts on Texas barbecue. The native Virginian categorizes the barbecue method most popular in Texas that employs a wood-fired offset smoker as “smoke-roasting.” It seems like an insult in the text, but he said it wasn’t his intention. I was prematurely on the defensive. He loves Texas barbecue, and said he has two smoke-roasters of his own. “I’m not trying to denigrate anybody’s particular kind of barbecue. I’m trying to compare and contrast,” he said, and using specific language, like “smoke-roasting” instead of “barbecuing” is the best way he found to maintain that specificity. Haynes spent five years on this project, and he said his main goal was to produce a resource that is “valuable in our quest to understand how important barbecuing is to us as Americans.” Then for emphasis, he added: “This thing is ours.”