After moving to Atlanta from New York years ago, it quickly became evident I had a language problem.
I embraced “y’all” with ease for its gender neutrality. Sweet tea somehow made sense, too. But it took years for me to let go of the habit of declaring a “barbecue” every time I decided to cook hamburgers, steaks or hot dogs on the grill.
A friend from Memphis was the first to call me out. Surely, I meant I was going to “grill out,” he said.
Barbecue involves slabs of meat cooking for hours – in a grill, in a smoker or maybe in the ground, depending on one’s level of enthusiasm. Grilling meat or vegetables for minutes at a time, he said, does not a barbecue make.
It would take years for me to see it his way (or, more likely, give up the fight) after learning what barbecue means to the South. There are rankings and contests and immutable beliefs about who does it best, all dependent on where you live and who your parents are – much like the origin of my linguistic confusion.
An email from my mother about her Memorial Day weekend says it all: “We had our first barbecue of the season: hot dogs, hamburgers and marinated chicken.”
Whether you call it barbecue, BBQ or Q, it’s more than a way of cooking, it’s myth, folklore, and American history, to quote culinary historian Sylvia Lovegren. Rather than rehash all that grist and grizzle, let’s look at something fairly basic: the difference between grilling and barbecue.
‘Low and slow’
Experts at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival offered clarity. In a nutshell, the difference is temperature and time.
Grilling is done over direct heat at high temperatures, said cookbook author Matt Lee, one half of the Lee Bros.
“Grilling is all about getting that quick sear with high temperatures,” he said.
Barbecue, on the other hand, is both a noun and a discipline, typically left to an esteemed member of the community because of the time commitment, “usually, Uncle Larry,” Lee said.
Barbecue is cooked “low and slow,” said pitmaster Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q in Decatur, Alabama, who was inducted into the Alabama Barbecue Hall of Fame in June. Barbecue is cooked over coals at low temperatures using indirect heat by pushing coals to one zone of the cooker and the meat to another zone.
Chef David Bancroft of Acre in Auburn, Alabama, concurred.
“When I am hosting a barbecue, I serve delicious smoked meats mopped down with homemade barbecue sauce. If we aren’t hosting a barbecue, then we might be grilling juicy steaks. Barbecue, for my family, is low and slow cooking, where grilling is intense direct heat,” he said.
But barbecue is more than a technique, Lilly added. It’s an experience.
“If I invite you to a barbecue, you better bring a pillow and blanket because it’s a whole weekend affair,” said Lilly. “It’s about family and community.”
From George Washington to Lyndon B. Johnson and many more in between, American politicians saw value in this definition of barbecue, using them as excuses for parties and events for political glad-handing.
Like many American traditions, they drew inspiration from existing cultures.
Blame it on the BBQ sauce
Spanish conquistadors reported seeing Taino-Arawak and Carib natives in Hispaniola roasting, drying and smoking meat “on wooden frameworks over small beds of coals,” Lovegren wrote in the article “Barbecue” for the June 2003 volume of American Heritage.
The framework was called a babracot, which the Spaniards turned into the word “barbacoa,” Lovegren wrote. The first European arrivals in America also found natives barbecuing “south of the not-yet-delineated Mason-Dixon Line” and took a liking to it.
Lovegren also concluded that barbecue is not grilling. It’s not flipping burgers, searing a steak or basting chicken and ribs with barbecue sauce, as was the custom at my family barbecues in Long Island. It’s cooking over low heat for hours, she said.
Beyond that, questions such as what kind of meat to cook, for how long and in what kind of sauce will produce just as many opinions as varieties of BBQ sauce in the grocery aisle.
Ted Lee blames the sauce for the blending of the terms “grilling” and “barbecue.” As more prepared sauces came on the market in 1950s and 1960s with the growing popularity of outdoor grilling, more people started using the terms interchangeably, he said.
Signs of “barbecue” being used interchangeably with grilling began to emerge before then.
Sunset, a West Coast-oriented magazine, published “Sunset’s Barbecue Book” in 1939 to capitalize on the early popularity of barbecuing in the West, author Tim Miller wrote in “The Birth of the Patio Daddy-O: Outdoor Grilling in Postwar America” in 2010 for the Journal of American Culture.
Miller also dug up a reference from food writer Clementine Paddleford, who traveled to five Western states in 1956 and visited dozens of homes as a popular food columnist.
“Everywhere the Barbecue. No longer a new thing, once a fad, now a ‘solid’ in the way of entertaining. I doubt if ever again fried meats will be in the running,” she wrote.
“Almost every Western home has an outdoor barbecue and usually a second built into the kitchen for cold weather use. Now the barbecue moves into smart dining rooms in restaurants. Charcoal broiled meats are featured served from the barbecue centered in the dining room and presided over by a chef in high hat.”
By then, outdoor grilling was a national fad, propelled by trends in American culture that made grilling a steak in the backyard not just an option “but a cooking destination,” Miller wrote. More than other methods of cooking, outdoor grilling afforded families and friends a time to socialize – another popular American pastime – while affirming gender roles.
“The rise of suburbs, the popularity of the outdoors and the West, and new perceptions of the role of men in the family – all of these things contributed to the spectacular popularity of outdoor grilling,” Miller wrote.
Apart from references attributed to his sources, Miller was careful to avoid using the terms interchangeably, “in order to avoid arguments between barbecue aficionados,” he said in a footnote to the article.
“While the terms barbecuing and grilling are often considered to be synonymous, it is more precise to say that barbecuing is a type of grilling.”
All of that makes sense to me. Like anything, it’s best to know your audience. As long as I’m living in the South, I’ll keep barbecue separate from grilling.
What’s your take? Let me know by tweeting me at @grinsli.