The Curiosity Chronicles

Musings on Meaning.
I'm Paul Bennett. I work at IDEO. I'm a designer. I'm curious.

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  • July 9, 2011 11:47 am

    Curious about…Barbacoa.

    Having just spent several days discussing “The Future of Meat” for a client (don’t ask), I felt compelled to look up the origins of that Great American Tradition, the barbecue. The second I thought of this, I found myself standing in front of a Chicago insitution, The Weber Grill Restaurant. Seems as if this was destiny. 

     Most etymologists believe that barbecue derives ultimately from the word barabicu found in the language of both the Timucua of Florida and the Taíno people of the Caribbean, which then entered European languages in the form barbacoa. The word translates as “sacred fire pit.” The word describes a grill for cooking meat, consisting of a wooden platform resting on sticks.

    Barbacoa de cabeza is a specialty of slow cooked cow head that arose in the ranching lands of northern Mexico after the Spanish conquest. One of the common characteristics of Mexican barbacoa is that marinades are not used and sauces are not applied until the meat is fully cooked. Pork cooked in this manner is generally referred to as carnitas rather than barbacoa.

    Throughout Mexico, from pre-Mexican times to the present, barbacoa utilized the many and varied moles (from Nahuatl molli) and salsa de molcajete, which were the first barbecue sauces. Game, turkey, and fish along with beans and other side dishes were slow cooked together in a pit for many hours. Following the introduction of cattle, domestic pigs, goats, sheep, and chickens by the Spanish, the meat of these animals was cooked utilizing the traditional indigenous barbacoa style of cooking.

    The West Indian Arawak people were the first to use the green and fire resistant flexible limbs of the hanging branches of the giant Bearded Fig Tree (Los Barbadoes) to cook meats and fish over an open fire while first marinating their foods in tropical herbs and spices found naturally throughout the southern islands to South America. Unlike latter variations, the original and most authentic “Barbacoa” used herbs and spices, such as island prepared “cassareep” (derived from the root of the cassava plant), not only to enhance the natural flavors of meats, fish and vegetables, but preserve their cooked foods from spoiling in the heat of the tropics. The Arawaks called their preparations “Barbacoa,” accordingly, as these methods proved to be a boon of protection for keeping their foods from prematurely spoiling.


    What Of It? Like many things that now seem commonplace and somewhat debased by their mass availability, barbecue has a rich historical past, filled with local traditions and cultural learnings. I wonder how many of us equate indigenous history with the stuff folks such as Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri do on Food TV.

    I am Curious about the origins of the mainstream, about the ways in which indigeny gets translated across cultures and time, about American Traditions that originate from elsewhere and how they become American.