How do you define barbecue? The meaning keeps changing
Cooking meat with fire and smoke is part of what makes us human. When that elemental technique became barbecue, cooking meat for longer and over lower heat, is impossible to date.
"I'm a cheerleader for the American exceptionalism of barbecue," said Adrian Miller, a barbecue historian and author of "Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue."
Miller sees barbecue as a coming together of Indigenous, European and African cultures in the United States.
For Howard Conyers, a scholar of barbecue with a day job as a NASA rocket scientist, barbecue only begins when you start cooking for a crowd.
"Most of the other meat cooking techniques only are able to cook a small amount," Conyers said.
Starting in the colonial era, settlers dug shallow pits for the coals with wood across the top as a grate. If the crowd grew, it was easy to make the pit a little longer and add more meat. The men tending these pits were almost always enslaved Africans, and their skill and ingenuity transformed barbecue from an expediency into an art.
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In the 20th century, the meaning of barbecue has shifted. Whole animals have given way to smaller cuts of meat. Restaurants turned barbecue from a special occasion feast into a daily meal. The rise of Texas barbecue has led some to believe only indirect cooking counts as real barbecue.
"I tell people trying to define barbecue now is like trying to catch a greased pig," Miller said, "because now we've expanded the definition of barbecue."
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