A Fourth of July barbecue may be part of your family’s traditions, but it’s steeped in our country’s history, as well. As far back as 1672 George Washington recorded attending a “barbicue” in Alexandria, Virginia. Early Independence Day celebrations were public gatherings where barbecues played an important role in bringing people together for good times and good food. And, as our young country spread westward, settlers brought the tradition of the barbecue with them along the trail.
Here in Southern New England, more than three centuries later, we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of a barbecue as any old backyard cookout. Friends from down South, though, will think of you as a meathead (not to be confused with a meat lover) should you invite them over for a barbecue and lay hot dogs and hamburgers on them.
True carnivores know the Southeast is where barbecue reigns supreme. From Texas and Oklahoma east to the Atlantic Ocean, and from Missouri, Kentucky and Virginia south to the Gulf of Mexico, barbecue has a special place in the culture. It’s both a noun as a name for a food, as well as a verb for the act of slow-roasting tough cuts of meat over fire to make them tender and tasty. Because of the prevalence of hogs in the South, which were plentiful and easy to raise, pigs became the meat of choice in most barbecues.
Today, barbecue has evolved into four main styles, named according to where they originated. Memphis is known for its pulled pork shoulder with a sweet tomato-based sauce, while in North Carolina the whole hog is smoked in a vinegar-based sauce. Ribs in Kansas City are cooked in a dry rub. Finally, Texans love their beef in a big way and their barbecue in two ways. The eastern part of the state favors pulled pork, while the western part enjoys its reputation for mesquite-grilled brisket.
Other countries offer up their own versions of barbecue, too. Korean barbecue is characterized by thin slices of beef or pork served with rice. Argentinians cook meat in a smokeless pit. And Mongolian barbecue is a stir-fry invention created in Taiwan. But no matter how you slice it, true barbecue remains as American as apple pie—or, for that matter, fireworks on the Fourth of July, which is all the more reason to enjoy it then.