The original subtitle of my book Barbecue: the History of an American Institution was “The History of a Southern Institution,” for I assumed that I could tell most of the story without venturing beyond the states that once made up the Confederacy. As I dug deeper into the research, though, I uncovered a wealth of material from the Midwest and Pacific Coast that proved barbecue to be a truly national institution.
Barbecue even has deep roots in New England, where it appears to have been a common form of entertainment in the 18th century. Way back in 1733, Benjamin Lynde, Jr., of Salem, Massachusetts, inscribed a cryptic diary entry: “Fair and hot; Browne, Barbacue [sic]; hack overset.” Lexicographers have interpreted this to mean that Lynde went to a barbecue with Mr. Browne and somewhere along the way someone wrecked a buggy. If this is correct, it’s the first written usage of "barbecue" to refer to a gathering or event.
Barbecue pops up in a bunch of other New England diaries a few decades later. On October 20, 1752, the Rev. Ebenezer Bridge of Chelmsford noted “A Barbacue in Dracut.” Mary Holyoke of Salem mentions “barbeques” in three entries between May 1761 and June 1762. Way up in Falmouth, Mainers celebrated the fall of Quebec City during the French and Indian War by staging a “festal barbecue” on an island in the harbor that subsequently became known as “Hog Island.”
So what were they cooking on the pits up there in New England? We can find a clue in the 1769 advertisement of one Thomas Carnes, who announced he was opening a tea and coffeehouse outside of Boston where “If any select Company at any Time should incline to have a barbecue, either Turtle or Pigg, they may depend having it done in the best Manner.”
After the Revolution, barbecue seems to have disappeared from the region. By the 1820s, when barbecues were becoming an integral feature of Jacksonian democracy in the South and the old Southwest, they appeared in New England newspapers only in brief notices condemning or mocking the rude, barbarous political habits of those on the frontier.
So, if you stop off at Chris Schlesinger’s East Coast Grill in Cambridge or Blue Ribbon Bar-B-Q in Arlington, Massachusetts, try not to make too big of a fuss about finding good slow-smoked pork in the land of lobster and chowder. They may pronounce it “bah-be-cue”, but they’re just getting back to their original culinary roots. Now, if they could just return turtle to the menu . . .
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.