Just before the holidays, the Wall Street Journal’s language columnist Ben Zimmer dug into the derivation of the word “barbecue” and the differences in how the word is used in the North, where a “barbecue” is likely to feature grilled hamburgers or hotdogs, and in the South, where the word universally means large cuts of meat cooked low and slow on a wood-fired pit.
What Zimmer doesn’t explain is how the North’s “more flexible meaning” came into use. As it turns out, what Southerners call “grilling” today originated as an imitation of large-scale outdoor barbecues, and it was a phenomenon driven primarily by the New York press.
In the 1920s, magazines like Good Housekeeping and American Home started running travel pieces describing big public barbecues in the South and Southwest—the kind where whole pigs and entire sides of beef were cooked all day over long pits dug in the ground. “An unusual way to entertain,” a 1924 Woman’s Home Companion article suggested, “is to give a barbecue.” The piece provided instructions for conducting a backyard version for up to 30 people, starting with digging a pit and ending with a recipe for “Cowboy Sauce” provided by a famed Colorado cook. Other publications printed similar articles, and the backyard barbecue enjoyed a brief vogue in the suburban northeast.
In the 1930s, affluent cooks began replacing the hole in the ground with permanent brick “barbecues”—what we in the South might call pits. Manufacturers began selling inexpensive brazier-style metal grills, too, which held the meat on a gridiron above the hot coals. More creative cone-shaped and wheeled inventions soon followed.
Though they initially fired their grills with wood, backyard cooks soon discovered a new form of fuel: charcoal briquettes. These were popularized by the Ford Motor Company, which established a charcoal company to use up the wood scraps from automobile manufacturing. (The firm was later spun off as the Kingsford Company.) After World War II, “barbecuing” on metal grills over charcoal briquettes boomed in popularity, and as the events became smaller, single-family affairs, pork shoulders gave way to steaks and chops and eventually to hamburgers, hot dogs, and even things like kabobs and corn on the cob.
Southerners weren’t too keen on this new definition for one of their favorite words. “Many Georgia epicures insist that this is an insult to the honorable name of barbecue,” Rufus Jarman wrote in The Saturday Evening Post in 1954. “You cannot barbecue hamburgers, roasting ears, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, or salami, and it is a shame and a disgrace to mention barbecue in connection with such foolishness.”
Today’s Southerners don’t seem any more likely to adopt this new usage when talking about grilling brats or searing a steak. But, at least we can understand why our friends from the North are prone to say such funny things.