Barbecue: An Etymological Discussion

Barbecue: An Etymological Discussion

‘Tis the season of weekly mowing, preparing the garden, and BBQ (although for some of us, the BBQ season lasts 12 months of the year).  May is officially recognized as National BBQ Month and it’s the time that millions of backyard chefs grab their tongs and head outside to cook with fire.


A couple of weeks ago I had an enthusiastic discussion with a few Salemites on Twitter about “what is BBQ” so I thought I’d expand on that a bit.  I’ll try to present this as a short etymological discussion, and leave my own personal viewpoint out. There’s no way I’ll succeed though. I just love barbecue too much.


The origin of the word “barbecue” comes from the word “barbacoa” which is, in general, a form of cooking meat with fire — all uses and forms of the words BBQ/barbecue/barbeque/Bar-B-Que, etc., started there.  And much like a good swear-word, the word “barbecue” has evolved to something that can be used as several different parts of speech and quite creatively:


verb – “I’m barbecuing this here pork butt today.”
adjective – “You can’t call that ‘barbecue ribs’ if you cooked them in the oven dammit.”
noun – “My barbecue turned out poorly, I should have used beef.”
adverb – “My tri-tip was barbecued to perfection.”


And it’s used to mean several different things:


Equipment for cooking: “This is my charcoal barbecue.”
Method of cooking: “I am barbecuing using hickory today.”
What I’m Eating: “This barbecue is the best I’ve ever had.”
A Cookout: “I’m going to a barbecue this afternoon. We’re having brisket.”


If you’re in the south (or the Barbecue Belt), the most widely accepted use is referencing the meat itself — specifically, it’s meat cooked using indirect heat and smoke.  If you’re here in the Northwest, you’ll hear ‘barbecue’ used in virtually every way, but most commonly to describe a cookout (calling a ‘cookout’ a ‘barbecue’ in the south could be bad for your health), or to describe the process for cooking hamburgers – which is actually grilling.  Grilling is not Barbecuing.  If you’re cooking hamburgers or hot dogs, there’s a 99.9% likelihood that it’s not barbecue.  On that note, barbecue sauce is a sauce used to put on your barbecued meat — however, putting barbecue sauce on your grilled meat will not magically transform it into barbecue any more than putting barbecue sauce on a piece of cat sh*t would.


Regardless, you can continue to use the word “barbecue” however you want.  Here’s my own personal viewpoint – to use the word “barbecue,” here’s what needs to be involved:

  1. Meat.  Sorry, this is non-negotiable.
  2. Indirect heat.
  3. Slow and Low, i.e., low temperatures and long cooking times.

I actually (mis)use the word “barbecue” in 3 different ways — to describe a cookout, to describe a method of cooking, and to describe what I’m eating — but only if I’ve got those 3 components above.  Without them, there’s simply no barbecue.


And if you don’t have barbecue, what have you got?


It’s National BBQ Month.  Go get a hunk of meat and cook it with some fire.

Also posted on eatsalem.com

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