Wednesday, October 10

A Pirate Barbecue

From the sauce-stained keyboard of guest blogger Robert Moss. 

Did pirates barbecue? Arrrrgh, of course they did, though the barbecuing may actually have come before the buccaneering.

Around 1630, the small island of Tortuga off the northwestern coast of Hispaniola (today, the Dominican Republic and Haiti) became a haven for a motley lot of vagabonds and refugees—deserters, escaped slaves, and shipwrecked sailors of all nationalities. They would sneak over to Hispaniola to hunt the wild cattle and pigs that roamed the sparsely populated coast, taking whatever they bagged back to Tortuga to avoid the local authorities.

These hunters discovered they could sell dried meat, hides, and lard to planters and ship captains, and soon they became known as “boucaniers.” The term derived from the Tupi word boucan, meaning a grate on which meat was slowly cured over a small fire. The hunters of Tortuga used such grates to dry their meat for sale and to cook feasts for themselves.

In his book The Buccaneer’s Realm (2007), Benerson Little describes a typical “boucanier barbecue.” To create the boucan, they pounded four forked sticks, each four feet long and about the diameter of a man’s arm, into the ground, creating a four-foot by three-foot rectangle. Next, they placed crosspieces in the forks to create a frame, then laid sticks lengthwise and crosswise to form a grill.

Pork or beef were the most common meats at these proto-barbecues, though goat, fish, turtle, and anything else on hand might be used. A dressed carcass was placed on its back atop the grill, its belly cavity rubbed with a marinade of lime juice, salt, and dried crushed pimento (that is, allspice). A nearby fire provided a constant supply of coals, which were shoveled beneath the boucan and refreshed continually while the meat cooked.

A Caribbean buccaneer from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates. He's looking forward to eating barbecue for supper.
At serving time, the meat would be carved into hunks and slices and delivered to the tables on large leaves. Diners ate with just knives and fingers, and they dunked their meat into a calabash gourd filled with a mixture of lime juice, salt, and allspice. Large quantities of wine and rum punch accompanied the feast.

It didn’t take long for the boucaniers—or, as they soon became known, “buccaneers”—to realize that Spanish treasure ships offered a more likely source of wealth than selling cured meat. They took to the sea, sailing the Spanish Main and attacking Spanish galleons and sloops, then retreating back to the islands with their loot. And, no doubt, celebrating their success with a little pirate-style barbecue.

You can follow Robert Moss on Twitter at @mossr.