A History Of Ribs

In early July, an $8,000 barbecue pit was stolen from a restaurant in Houston, Texas.

I can’t imagine the logistics of confiscating a giant barbecue pit, but the timing provides the explanation for the dastardly act: It is summer, after all.

I’m not sure there is anything more American than barbecue. And I don’t mean the sort of barbecue where you throw a few hot dogs on a grill. I’m talking about the kind of barbecue experience where you grill meat for a really long time – maybe eight to 12 hours-over indirect heat.

No matter how red, white and blue the whole process seems to us, barbecue is not an American invention. It probably dates back to our relatives-the homo erectus. Israeli scientists have found evidence of barbecue parties dating back 200,000 years, and it looks like women were the grill masters.

In both the ancient books of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” Homer mentions spits and five-pronged forks used to roast meat that was basted with salt and wine at outdoor feasts in ancient Greece. So, our modern method of barbecuing probably began sometime after the Iron Age when the gridiron was developed.

And, the Bible gets in on the action too. In Chapter 29 of the Old Testament, there are instructions on how to prepare the sacrifice of a young bull and two rams, and it describes the process as “a sweet savour.” By all accounts, Moses’ brother Aaron and a local priest had a very nice feast.

And here’s a bit of interesting trivia: In 1700s England, they had dog powered rotisseries – contraptions where a terrier would run inside a wheel to rotate the spit in the fireplace.

OK. So maybe America didn’t invent the barbecue. But we’ve certainly perfected it.

Christopher Columbus came across the American version of barbecuing when he ran into some Native Americans who were preserving and cooking meat by placing it on a wooden frame above a fire. They called this method “barbacoa,” and the word has stuck. It’s not that the Europeans were unfamiliar with smoking meat for preservation, but the Native Americans put a unique spin on the process.

And we have George Washington to thank for pairing barbecuing with partying. He wrote in his diary on May 27, 1769, that he “Went in to Alexandria to a Barbecue and stayed all Night.” He apparently brought 48 bottles of French claret to another barbecue. (Go George!)

By the 19th century in America, barbecuing in the Deep South had become an institution.

Martha McCullogh-Williams – a teenager during the Civil War who lived on a plantation – published a book of recipes in 1913 taught to her by her black Mammy, including one for a barbecue sauce.

She wrote, “The animals … are laid upon clean split sticks … there the meat stays for 12 hours-from midnight to noon the next day, usually. It is basted steadily with salt water, applied with a clean mop (baste), and turned over once only. Live coals are added as needed from the log fire kept burning a little way off.”

That sounds like barbecue to me.

These days, American barbecue varies by region with four main styles named after the place from whence they came: Texas; Memphis; North Carolina and Kansas City.

In Memphis, pulled pork is the star and is usually smothered in a sweet tomato sauce. In North Carolina you’ll find a whole pig grilled in a vinegar sauce. If you head over to Kansas City, you’ll find ribs cooked in a dry rub and in Texas beef is on the menu.

Don’t bother arguing with anyone from the barbecue capitals about which method is best. It’s a fight you’ll never win. In fact, I’m more inclined to pick a recipe from the past and bypass the debate.

Our Martha from the plantation provides a recipe for barbecue sauce which combines 2 pounds of sweet lard (butter), 1 pound of black pepper, fiery red peppers stewed soft, a spoonful of some secret herbs and a quart of the strongest apple vinegar they could find with a bit of salt added. This was all simmered for a half an hour, just as the meat was nearly grilled and then brushed on.

Here’s the takeaway from our ancestors: You need a mop sauce and a finishing sauce when you barbecue. And you need to cook the meat slowly and indirectly for a long time.

The mop sauce-usually made with water, salt, lemon juice and butter – is applied to the meat with a brush or small rag at intervals during the cooking process. You begin to mop when the meat begins to dry a bit on the surface.

The finishing sauce can be store bought or homemade-with a ketchup based recipe for example-and is applied to the meat in the last 15 to 30 minutes of cooking to provide the tang and the drip and the joy of a summer day.

Since women may have been the first grill masters, I am encouraging females to get involved in the process, beyond yelling out the window, “When is the meat going to be done?”

And there’s no need to covet your neighbor’s barbecue pit.

Your grill will work just fine.