Is American Identity Cooked up on the Grill?

For those of you international folks unfamiliar with the holiday, Labor Day Weekend marks the end of summer, and with it, the end of regular summer barbecues—another American tradition. In fact, the cuisine has become synonymous with American identity—and yes you cynical people, it is a cuisine. Among food that is indisputably American, the grilled hotdog and hamburger are iconic.

As I personally follow the tradition of the summer barbecue, my curiosity was aroused about the history of this sacred summer ritual. Turns out, it’s long and rich one. And like so many traditions around the world, it’s actually a lesson in diversity.

Legend has it, that the source of the name “barbecue” is derived from the Spaniards who discovered the method of cooking from indigenous peoples in North and South America, calling the practice, “barbacoa.” The method has endured over the past five centuries and now occupies a proper space in American culture—3 out of 4 Americans today own a grill, and some of us even have a Green Egg as well. The question is, why?

To answer this, we must look at the context of barbecue around the world. As Time explains, plenty of other countries have their own distinctive types of barbecue: “Korean barbecue features thin slices of beef or pork cooked and served with rice. Argentina has asado, or marinade-free meat cooked in a smokeless pit,” the Mideast even has its own form of grilled foods, which sometimes intrudes on the geopolitical landscape, and of course, there’s Mongolian barbecue, a “type of stir-fry recently invented in Taiwan.” True barbecue, however, remains distinctly American. And there is data to support this contention.

According to data collected by Y&R’s proprietary research group, BAV, the purchasing of grills has steadily risen—even in periods shortly following economic turmoil. In 2009, just two years after America’s worst economic decline since the Great Depression, grill sales were up by 6 percent. By 2013, they were up 12 percent. Perhaps that is because the American barbecue, in its most simple form, is an affordable way to eat and commune.

Barbecue is egalitarian. It crosses all socioeconomic categories, political barriers, and ethnic origins. It is about the friends and family and outdoor fun that accompanies a great cookout. It’s a place of open discussion over a beer and a plate of food, and frankly, it tends to be a “safe place” where thoughts are shared, jokes are told, and where there are rarely winners and losers—only good BBQ. Listen:

“Barbecue may not be the road to world peace, but it’s a start”—Anthony Bourdain

I love my summer barbecues and meat smoking. And in the winter, when I can’t grill in my own backyard, I’m always happy to play my part in achieving world peace, even if it means getting on a train downtown to chow down at my favorite BBQ spot in Brooklyn.

What’s your favorite type of barbecue? What’s your favorite barbecue join? What do you think?


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