It's the beginning of July, and Southern families are preparing to light up the barbecue and the night sky. Every store is advertising recipes, tips, and tricks, how to stay cool in the sizzling heat, and where to go to watch the best fireworks—but have you ever wondered where the tradition of the Southern BBQ came from?
More than Two Centuries of Summer Grilling
Some believe it began in the early 1800s when early colonists would smoke large animals over fire pits to cook, smoke and preserve meat. But barbecue was a means of cooking long before British colonists declared Independence. African Americans typically did the labor-intensive cooking of using piercing poles to flip carcasses, seasoned by basting them in a sauce primarily made of vinegar and red pepper.
BBQ's roots began in the culinary traditions of Indigenous people, as British settlers in the Virginia colony melded their meat cooking techniques with the smoking techniques of the Pohatans. During the 1800s, this tradition of cooking and especially smoking meat was continued by colonists in the summer due to the abundance of game.
This practice spread across the first half of the 19th century as political leaders began staging rallies to mark Independence Day (not an official holiday yet) to draw crowds. They held massive barbeques, often roasting whole pigs and even oxen.
Celebrations became highly controlled and standardized, with July 4th barbeques across Virginia, Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Ceremonies opened with a prayer, followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence. The crowd would sing patriotic songs, and a prominent community member would deliver a rousing patriotic speech. After, everyone would retire to a nearby shady grove where a barbeque feast awaited them.
When the feast was over, the toasting began. Initially, the toast consisted of 13 toasts, one for each of the original colonies, each delivered by a prominent person chosen in advance.
The 20th Century
During the 1920s, the tradition of massive Independence Day celebrations became much smaller for several reasons, including the rising cost of meat. Communities began to charge to cover the price, and open-pit cooking moved to brick-lined pits with more minor cuts of meat. Eventually, people started eating barbeque in restaurants or building barbeque pits in their back years, which paved the way for the kettle grills that would become staples of family homes during the 1950s.
Of course, there's a lot more detail into the history of outdoor cooking and grilling and a lot of passion over BBQ rubs, sauces, and styles—but thanks to design and technological innovations, a barbeque can happen at any time, anywhere. The South still loves to go all out on the 4th of July.
4th of July plates can be filled with spare ribs, hot dogs, bratwurst and sausages, chicken cuts of all kinds, with sides of potato salad, coleslaw, baked beans, and more. Families create and continue traditions such as the best mac and cheese and grandma's famous chess pie while creating new memories that will last a lifetime.