The south is known for its barbecues, grilling, and seafood boils. Depending on the geography of the state, food prepared in these ways varies, but the same cooking methods are used throughout the South. These techniques are often used to cook meals in quantity, which are shared with the greater community. The cooking experience is intrinsically communal as well.

Stories, life lessons, and bonding are all part of outdoor cooking. Although Southern men are certainly at home in the kitchen, it is often men who spend the night shoveling coals and embers for barbecue, or who boil gallons of water to cook seafood. The act of cooking together in multi-generational groups is part of the experience, with elders informing young relatives of the intricacies of the cooking, the fire, and the preparations necessary for a perfect meal. All the while they are imparting knowledge of the group, giving advice about living, and passing on the values of the community.

Our word “barbecue” originated with a Taino Indian term, barbacoa (as recorded by the Spanish conquistadores) — a frame of green saplings over which meats and seafood would be smoked-roasted over a wood fire. The word made its way northward from the Caribbean to what we now know as the Southern United States. Barbecue involves a low temperature and prolonged cooking time, with the food generally cooked next to, not directly over the fire. Smoke is the soul of barbecue, although the wood varies as you travel throughout the South. Texans prefer oak and mesquite, for example, while in Kentucky and Tennessee, hickory and apple are the fuels of choice.

The first thing to come to terms with is that barbecue is not synonymous with grilling. Unfortunately, “Backyard Grilling Party” does not sound as catchy as “Backyard Barbecue. ” But the outdoor event where people grill hot dogs and burgers on an open flame using store-bought charcoals and a spatula isn’t actually a barbecue. Barbecue is a slow smoking process that uses various types of wood that are sometimes placed in a separate chamber from the meat (commonly the whole animal), depending on the type of barbecue pit being used. Grilling, on the other hand, takes much less time because it is done using high heat with smaller, tender pieces of meat.

In Colonial and nineteenth century America, and even in some parts of the South today, barbecue was cooked on sticks or metal grates stretched over a wood ember-filled pit or trench. The work was typically done by African Americans, who spent the night tending the fire, watching the meat, and serving it the next day. Thus was born the barbecue “pit” and pit barbecue. Today, most American barbecue is cooked above ground in a brick or metal cooker, but we still refer to the equipment as a “pit.” As for the term barbecue, over the centuries its meaning has broadened to the point where we now use it as a verb, “to cook meats or seafoods with wood smoke or simply to cook outdoors,” and a noun, “a piece of cooking equipment; a public or family meal cooked and eaten outdoors; or a particular meat cooked and eaten in a traditional manner.”

What one means by “barbecue” varies widely as you travel through the South. In the Carolinas, for example, it means pork, chopped or shredded and doused with vinegar sauce (in North Carolina) or mustard sauce (in parts of South Carolina) and often served with pickles or slaw on a bun. In Texas, barbecue generally refers to beef, particularly brisket. There are micro-regions of barbecue, like Owensboro, Kentucky, where “barbecue” means smoked mutton, or Decatur, Alabama, where it describes smoked chicken served with a white mayonnaise-based barbecue sauce.

Wherever and however it’s done, barbecuing requires patience, imagination, and hard work.   The equipment, fuel, seasonings, proteins, and sauces (or lack of sauces) vary from city to city and state to state. It takes years of experience to get coals just right and to feel for the temperature instead of using a thermometer. These skills make the places that use a computer controlled pit with thermocouples seem like cheating.

We are fortunate to have the noted TV host and barbecue expert Steven Raichlen as our barbecue curator. With Steven’s help, we curated our Trail of Smoke and Fire.

Just like barbecue, boiling is a group process. It often involves actually catching bushel baskets of crabs, shrimp, or crawfish. The cooking at the boil is not as arduous as spending the night at a barbecue. But the time spent together catching the regional shellfish, and the secrets and finesse of proper seasoning, makes the boil different but important as a community social event. Unlike barbecue, which you can enjoy immediately when it hits your plate, a boil requires the ability to peel your crustacean before you eat it. Just learning how to do that provides one more teaching moment.

Before the advent of widespread crawfish farming in the 1970s, boils in the New Orleans area were shrimp and crabs only. In the environs of Baton Rouge and Lafayette, boils meant crawfish. Today crawfish is easy to find in New Orleans, as well as in Cajun country, so boils are more reflective of the season than the place. And as people have tried to make their boils more interesting, more than just corn and potatoes have found a home in the boils – including artichokes, sweet potatoes and sausage.