The History of Barbecue

As Long as There's Been Fire, We've Been Cooking Over It

Charcoal briquettes in a grill
Frank Schiefelbein / EyeEm / Getty Images

Because humankind has no doubt been cooking meat since the discovery of fire, it's impossible to point to any one person or culture that "invented" the barbecue method of cooking. Neither do we know when, exactly, it was invented. We can look to several countries and cultures, however, from which barbecue likely gets its roots, like the 19th-century United States or the Caribbean. 

Cowboy Cookin'

The trail hands slogging their way across the American West in endless cattle drives were allotted less than perfect cuts of meat as part of their daily rations. But these cowboys were nothing if not industrious, and they soon discovered these cuts, like the stringy brisket, could be much improved with five to seven hours of slow cooking to tenderize. Soon they became adept at other meats and cuts, like pork butt, pork ribs, beef ribs, venison, and goat.

Funny, how this invention of necessity would eventually become a mania in some parts of the U.S., but just try to debate the merits of Kansas City over Texas over Low Country styles of barbecue. You'll quickly see how passionate and obstinate their adherents can be.

Island Meats and French Treats

Although there is hardly a country in the world whose people don't in some way partake in outdoor grilling of some kind, say the word barbecue to most people and they think America. But that doesn't mean it was invented here, cowboys or no cowboys. For instance, the Arawakan Indians of the West Indian island of Hispaniola have for over 300 years cooked and dried meat over an apparatus they call a "barbacoa"—which is just a short linguistic hop to "barbecue."

And no discussion of culinary history would be complete without the French stepping in to assert their hegemony. Many assert the origin of the word goes back to Medieval France, stemming from an Old Anglo-Norman word, "barbeque," a contraction of the old-french expression "barbe-à-queue," or, "from the beard to the tail," referring to how a whole animal was speared before being cooked, spit-style, over a fire.

But this is all conjecture, as no one is really certain of the origin of the word.

Charcoal Instead of Wood

For centuries, the fuel of choice for cooking has been wood, and it is still preferred among barbecue aficionados, including those who compete in the thousands of contests that crop up in the U.S. each year. In America, in fact, smoking meats with woods like mesquite, apple, cherry, and hickory, thereby adding extra dimensions of flavor, has become a culinary art form. 

But modern-day backyard barbecuers have Ellsworth B. A. Zwoyer of Pennsylvania to thank for making their lives much easier. In 1897, Zwoyer patented a design for charcoal briquettes and even built several plants after World War I to produce these compacted squares of wood pulp. However, his story is overshadowed by that of Henry Ford's, who in the early 1920s was looking for a way to reuse wood scraps and sawdust from his Model T assembly lines. He snagged the technology to start a briquette-manufacturing company, which was run by his buddy Edward G. Kingsford. The rest is history.