Image by Scott Murry. Research and additional reporting by Katherine Tamola
Last month, the Huffington Post named “10 BBQ Meccas to Visit Before You Die.” Not surprisingly, no spots in Greater Boston made the list.
For a second, let’s pretend the clickwhores who compiled said compendium actually visited a bunch of pit restaurants, and knew what the hell they were talking about. Even if our most exalted Hub-area rib joints like Redbones and Blue Ribbon don’t belong on such a list, you’d be historically ignorant to leave Boston and New England out of the Fourth of July kitchen conversation.
Yes, BBQ is religiously linked to the South. Kind of like reggae to Jamaica, po’ boys to the French Quarter, and so on. That’s actually for a lot of good reasons, none of which you’ll likely hear from smug southerners who insist that racks are most delicious down in Dixie. Geographically speaking, early Spanish explorers learned how to smoke and dry fish and meats from the Cherokee and Creek Indians on the Chesapeake Bay down to the Carolinas. Furthermore, the word “barbecue” itself most likely derives from the Spanish term “barbacoa,” or “baraboica” as the Taino tribe of the Caribbean called the slow-cooking process.
On the procedural side, findings by the Association for Dressings and Sauces (yes, there is such a thing) suggest that barbecue-style provisions were consumed as far back as 700 B.C. With such vast influences coalescing in this country, though, respected arbiters like Tremont 647 Owner Andy Husbands believe BBQ is the “true American cuisine.” Asked about the tradition, the James Beard Award honoree and renowned competitive brisket champ says, “there is no other American cuisine besides that.”
As for where the Hub fits into all of this … while everybody in and around the New World, from Native Caribbeans to Virginia settlers, was barbecuing – George Washington wrote that he attended one such social and culinary smorgasbord for three straight days in Alexandria – New Englanders were in on the action as well, albeit in a largely rhetorical capacity, before G-Dub even got to the party. According to the journal Southern Cultures, the first recorded use of the word “barbecue” in Boston was in 1675, but it wasn’t exactly used to describe a grill-out. The editor explains: “The Boston Puritan Cotton Mather used the word in the same gruesome sense when he reported that several hundred Narragansetts slaughtered by New England troops in 1675 (among them women, children, and elders burned in their lodges) had been “terribly Barbikew’d.”
Moving forward, Bostonians began using the word in ways closer to what’s understood today, though the context is still jarring by any modern measure. In 1744, a Boston-area newsletter featured an advertisement that appears to have been placed by someone looking for a slave who knows his way around a furnace: “A Lusty Negro Man, works well at the Smith’s Trade; likewise a Grate for to burn Coal; a large Gridiron, fit for a large Kitchen, or a Barbeque.” The next recorded use by a local was in 1808, when Congressman Josiah Quincy of Boston dismissed retail politicians who preach to the choir “white the gin circulated, while barbecue was roasting.”
As for the specific flavors contributed by natives of New England … that’s not so easy to trace. Husbands and others have certainly contributed to the carnivorous canon, but there are a few baseline BBQ qualifiers, and they’re hardly rooted in Boston. David Sela, a professor of food science at UMASS Amherst, says it’s important to first understand the difference between grilling and BBQ. “BBQ,” he explains, “is a specific subset … cooking at low temperatures for a long time.” Think ideal brisket or ribs. From there, Sela says, “different pockets of the country have different traditions,” from vinegar-based pulled pork in the Carolinas, to dry-rub pork ribs in Memphis, to titanic beef racks in Texas. In New England, the professor says we tend to dig our BBQ “a little sweet and a little smoky.”
Melting pot that Boston is, there’s no telling what will turn up at a Fourth of July BBQ around here. It’s been that way since the halcyon buffet days of John Adams, whose diary shows the gluttonous second President consuming everything from duck and ham to “beer, porter, punch, and wine” on such special summer occasions. For Sela, the staples include hot dogs, burgers, and grilled corn, perhaps with a side of oysters, though “not as the star of the show.” As for Husbands, he’ll be serving short rib, skirt steak, and lobster mac and cheese. Just for starters. “We’re actually going to open up early,” he says. “We’re going Americana – fried chicken, BBQ ribs, cornbread, brisket, fish n’ chips.”
Like Sela says, “BBQ is something people take very, very seriously. There is a culture that has developed around it.”
No doubt. Even here in Boston.