Are You Grilling Or Are You Barbecuing?

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Ages ago an errant stroke of lightning struck a dry woodland. The ensuing fire consumed not only the trees, but several animals too slow to escape. A curious caveman meandered into the still smoldering forest. He stopped. What was that he smelled? It smelled… “delicious” would have been the word he would have used if he could speak English.

He looked all around for the source of that compelling aroma. Amidst the pockets of remaining flames, he found it. It looked ugly, a blackened char. Yet, it was unmistakable. The sumptuous scent came from what looked like what used to be an animal.

Salivating, he grabbed it and took a big deep bite.

Then promptly spit it out. “Yeech!” How could something that smelled so good taste so bad.

But the bite revealed the hidden treasure. Beneath the charred surface the caveman saw the still sizzling juicy meat. He stripped the remaining black from the roast beast and ate until he could eat no more.

It was good. He wanted more. Not right now. He wanted to be able to cook his future dinners. All he need was, what was it that he needed? Lightning? No. He needed what that lightning produced: fire.

So begins the story of grilling, that is, cooking meat over an open flame.

July is National Grilling Month. Nothing more represents this joy than those hamburgers and hot dogs you cooked this past July 4th. Indeed, your part in this annual event honors America’s way of celebrating its independence from its earliest years.

What went into these commemorations? “…the discharge of cannon, ringing of the city bells, and other marks of joy and gladness” followed by “a magnificent dinner,” as the July 8th, 1785 edition of The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia) describes one such event. The same paper depicts another observance this way:

“That truly band of brothers, the sociable society of Cincinnati, also held their anniversary meeting at Mr. Cape’s, where the utmost hilarity prevailed, and, after an elegant dinner, provided for the occasion, the following toasts were drank, under a discharge of cannon… At noon the members of the Cincinnati waited on his worship the mayor and corporation, at the City-Hall, to congratulate them on the day; and from thence, preceded by the constables, they all paid their compliments to his Excellency the President of Congress, and after mutual congratulations, returned again to Mr. Cape’s, where, by order of the corporation, a collation was provided, of which all present partook, and enjoyed a degree of pleasure unknown to many pseudo citizens.”

What did this dinner consist of? Four years later (July 16, 1789) the same paper reports this: “Richmond, July 9. On Saturday last, being the 4th of July, a respectable body of gentlemen of this city assembled about a mile from town (where an excellent barbacue was provided) to celebrate the anniversary of that glorious day which spoke America into Empire.”

Very quickly, the tradition of this style of outdoor cooking spread throughout the south with “barbacue” becoming synonymous with Independence Day. By the early 1800s, southern newspapers regularly advertised July 4th “Barbacues.”

Notice spelling of “barbacue.” While this form (incorrect according to Merriam-Webster and other dictionaries) remains in use, the accepted form of spelling evolved into “barbecue.” “Barbeque,” “Bar-B-Que,” “Bar-B-Q,” and “BBQ” are also commonly used (especially in the south).

That barbecues and the Fourth of July (as well as political campaigning) go hand-in-hand may have to do with the British snubbing of this culinary festival. In the introduction to his 1707 book The Barbacue Feast: Or, the Three Pigs of Peckham, Edward Ward warns “those of more sophisticated tastes should now take a deep breath and hold their noses or just look away as we delve into the history of this most American food.”

Barbecue historian Robert F. Moss says Ward’s book represents “the most detailed account we have of a barbecue from the early colonial period.” It also paints a very good reason why the barbecue presented an ideal way to honor our independence from Britain.

The July 12, 1838 issue of The Charleston Mercury describes an antebellum dinner that could have occurred in any state, not just South Carolina: “Fourth of July… was celebrated with all the patriotic enthusiasm which the day so naturally inspires… At 2 o’clock the company retired to a delicious spring of water in the vicinity, where a Barbecue had been tastefully prepared under the spread of some spreading trees.”

But are you really following this barbecuing tradition? Perhaps you’re not really barbecuing. You may, in fact, be grilling.

Food aficionados will tell you that barbecuing, and grilling are two different things. To understand this, you’ll need the etymology of both terms.

“Barbecue” is often said to have come from the Spanish word barbacoa (not the middle “a” as in “barbacue” and not “barbecue”). This reference comes from Gonzalo Fernndez de Oviedo y Valds’s Historia general y natural de las Indias, islas y tierra-firme del mar oceano (“General and natural history of the Indies, islands and mainland of the ocean sea”). Published in 1535, barbacoa appears five times, mostly in reference to roasting something or other.

To be fair, not everyone thinks the “barbacoa” story has any veracity. Indeed, there are other claims (from the French, from the tribes of the West Indies and Virginia, and perhaps a few others).

“Grill,” on the other hand, definitely comes from France. The French word grille means “grating,” i.e., the physical latticework you’re used to grilling on.

The difference goes beyond etymological origins. It includes the style of cooking. The Culinary Institute of America (“CIA”) states it plainly: “Barbecue is not the same as grilling, even if you grill foods with a barbecue sauce.”

The CIA adds, “Barbecuing requires smoke to properly flavor and color the food,” and, more importantly, “Barbecued foods are cooked at low temperatures for long periods in order to develop the best flavor and an extremely tender texture, often referred to as slow-and-low cooking.”

It is this slow, indirect heat cooking that differentiates barbecuing from grilling. The CIA says, “grilling cooks food with radiant heat from a source located below it.” Think an open flame directly beneath your vittles. Unlike the slow, low temperature style of barbecuing, which tenderizes tough meat, grilling chars the surface and can leave the interior a bit raw. (This is exactly what Frank Menches said happened when he cooked the first ever hamburger at the Erie County Fair in 1885.)

So, what is it? Did you barbecue or grill this past July 4th?

Don’t worry about your answer. No less than the Father of Our Country referred to “barbeque” in three different ways. Not only did George Washington spell it three different ways – “Barbecue” (1769), “Barbicue” (1773), and “Barbacue” (1774) – he also used the words in two different ways.

In 1758, as a Colonel serving in the French and Indian War, he asked for provisions to cure meat by “barbecuing it in the indian manner” (his spelling). Here, he was referring to the process of smoking it.

It was the latter three references that might spark a smile in you, knowing you and George Washington have a lot in common. No matter how he spelled it, the future first President of the United States thought of a “barbecue” not as a style of cooking, but as a social event to be enjoyed by all.

And isn’t that what we all want, no matter how we cook our burgers and dogs?


  1. What a debate. However, with some grills you can do both! Check out the big green egg for slow and low cooks, but you can also raise the temperature quickly to get a nice sear or cook some burgers.


  1. […] Day. But, do you really know what you just did? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “Are You Grilling Or Are You Barbecuing?” to learn how even the Father of Our Country was confused on this culinary […]

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