In the summer of 1770, George Washington came to Fredericksburg for an extended stay. His time here would seem familiar to anyone who has gone back to their childhood hometown. While in town he visited his mother, went to the tavern to play cards with old friends, and stayed with his sister and brother-in-law. But the most interesting moment of his stay was on August 4, 1770 when he records…
“Dined at the Barbicue with a great deal of other Company and stay’d there till Sunset.”
While it is difficult to understand what exactly he meant by ‘Barbicue’. It is safe to assume that it was a communal meal similar to a modern day cook-out. Going to a cookout, a barbecue or a picnic, in today’s parlance, all mean pretty much the same thing – eating well-known foods while outdoors, probably seated on the ground, in a casual atmosphere. Above all, it is a highly social gathering. We use these kinds of meals to celebrate national holidays, family occasions or just a beautiful day – it’s what Americans do. But where did this past-time come from?
In England, the idea of consuming light fare outdoors in the form of a picnic had been around since as early as 1748, when the word “picnic” first shows up in writing. The word was probably a corruption of the French “pique nique” which basically means “to pick at small foods,” but for the English a picnic meant a fully mobile meal and all the accoutrements necessary to eat it. Baskets of food were packed, equipment for entertainment (games of cricket or maybe some hunting or fishing) was gathered, and wagons were loaded (usually one for guests, and one or more for the provisions). Then, the party set off to a pre-determined picturesque location, where it was all unpacked and set up by servants. Although we might be amazed at the sheer volume of stuff these picnics required (everything from chairs and tables to cutlery and glassware), an 18th century English picnic was still considered a very informal affair by that time’s standards. Guests might even be asked to contribute dishes to the meal (a forerunner of our potlucks), making recipes for picnic food were all the rage by the late 18th century.
This painting shows chairs being provided for the ladies to use during lunch on a fishing trip. The Anglers’ Repast (1789) by George Morland, 1763–1804, British, Oil on canvas. Public domain. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
While picnic’s etymology is relatively easy to trace, ‘Barbecue’ is far more difficult to pin down in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even the term itself is nearly impossible to decipher. The earliest known recording comes from a Spanish explorer in 1526, who used it as a verb meaning to roast meat. In 1672, the first reference in English came from the writings of John Lederer, a German explorer of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Originally written in Latin, Lederer’s expedition reports were translated into English by Maryland’s Governor Sir William Talbot and published.
Many scholars believe the word “barbecue” most likely derives from the West Indian word “barbacoa” in the 16th century. Believed to be a Taino word (although this is still up to scholarly debate), it is a term for slow-roasting meat over hot coals, usually using plenty of green saplings that would have created a lot of smoke. The meat originally roasted in this style was probably not the ubiquitous pork barbecue. While Christopher Columbus did bring some pigs on his voyage, it is Hernando de Soto who is credited with introducing the pig into Central America and Florida in 1539.
The word, and the meat, was probably encountered by ships’ crews during the colonial period and eventually made its way to the American colonies. Slow-roasting meat and spicing it with various rubs and marinades was a familiar concept in a many parts of the world, and especially on the African continent, so enslaved Africans living in the colonies also helped to proliferate the cooking method. As happened with many traditions from around the globe that found their way to the New World, a true “barbecue” as George would know it quickly became a uniquely American concept, combining the English love of a good outdoor meal and the exotic foods and cooking methods of the West Indies and Africa.
While the first American barbecues were practical affairs, held among enslaved communities or farming populations during the slaughtering season so as to quickly cook and preserve as much meat as possible, they very quickly took on a much more social aspect. An entire town might gather for a barbecue, which might last for several days, perhaps to coincide with court days or a market.
Between 1769 and 1774, George Washington recorded his attendance at six such affairs in his diary, including one barbecue that he hosted himself, another that was probably held at Fielding Lewis’s house in Fredericksburg, and a third in Alexandria at which he stayed all night.
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