The proper use of the word "barbecue" is a topic that stirs regional passions. Folks from northern climes think nothing of saying, "Come over this afternoon and we'll barbecue some brats." Such a usage jars the ears of Southerners and can launch them into long speechifying on how barbecue is a noun, not a verb, and that you can only create such a noun by slow-roasting meat on a wood-fired pit.
Historically, though, there is a direct link between the backyard barbecue and the pit tradition. In the 1920s, popular magazines ran articles describing outdoor barbecues in the South and West. They instructed readers on how to stage similar events at home—the first step was to dig a hole in the yard. In the 1930s, more affluent families began to install outdoor brick "barbecues"—more sophisticated fireplace than lowly pit.
During World War II, the backyard barbecue became popular with all social classes. In an era of gas and food rationing, it offered, as the New York Herald Tribune put it, "an economic means of entertainment al fresco." Manufacturers introduced barbecue grills, which evolved from simple braziers to more elaborate devices like the Weber kettle. To fit the smaller scale of a single family, pork shoulders gave way to chops and steaks, which in turn led to hamburgers and hotdogs. Wood was replaced by lump charcoal, which later was replaced by charcoal briquettes and, eventually, natural gas.
|Image from the Better Homes and Gardens Barbecue Book, 1959.|
By the 1950s, the backyard barbecue was an entrenched symbol of the good life in America, though not everyone was happy about it. "Many Georgia epicures insist that this is an insult to the honorable name of barbecue," Rufus Jarman wrote in The Saturday Evening Post in 1954. "You cannot barbecue hamburgers, roasting ears, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, or salami, and it is a shame and a disgrace to mention barbecue in connection with such foolishness.
Almost sixty years later, that issue still isn't resolved.
Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper, is the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. You can follow him on Twitter at @mossr.