Barbacoa makes barbecue sound flaming hot

Barbecues were a portable affair when I was growing up, not because we had an endless supply of disposable ones but because my parents used an ancient metal wheelbarrow to accommodate the vagaries of the English summer. Into this went some bricks arranged in a square and balanced on that was a metal grill. It was perfect whatever the weather, since if rain threatened it could be quickly wheeled under cover on the terrace and we carried on as normal.

We have the indigenous people of North and South America to thank for the word “barbecue”. They cooked their food over a raised grate or barbacoa. They also covered it with rushes and used it as a bed, hopefully not when lit. It was in the mid-seventeenth century that the word barbecue came to be associated more widely with a method of cooking.

Edward Hickeringill (1631-1708) an eccentric Englishman living in Jamaica writes in 1661 of a group of former slaves who, having killed a hog, sliced it open and “their flesh barbecu’d and eat” [sic]. This method had a variety of advantages, especially for those tribes like the Taíno in the Caribbean and the Miskito in Central America, who lived by hunting or subsistence farming. First of all, since barbecue grilling made even the toughest meat tender, virtually every part of an animal could be eaten and nothing was wasted; secondly, it required little fuel; and best of all it made for a tasty meal.

It took a while for US settlers to adopt this style of cooking, but by the late 1940s barbecues had become a quintessentially American style of outdoor cooking and eating in summer. The catalyst was the Cold War. As Kristin L. Matthews argued in Reading America: Citizenship, Democracy and Cold War Literature, “the United States’ uneasy relationship with the Soviet Union, coupled with fears of communist infiltration at home, raised the question of how to differentiate ‘us’ from ‘them’.”

The barbecue offered a tasty solution. Despite its native origins, its status as a “frontier” practice allowed it to be claimed as a symbol of US exceptionalism – and, by extension, a mark of American identity. Anyone who enjoyed barbecued meat, the logic went, must be “one of us”. And as it was enthusiastically adopted by the urban middle classes, it gradually acquired an association with home ownership and consumerism, which served to cement it in the popular imagination as an “all-American” activity.

Since then, the fashion for barbecues has spread worldwide, including the UK, where these days it’s not just a meat or veggie extravaganza, since many food writers extol the virtues of a full-day barbie feast, all rustled up over the hot coals. It starts with a full English and goes on to include lunch and supper – right down to brownies and cocoa last thing at night.

For my part, I’m intrigued by the history of the barbecue as a male preserve – in my own household, at any rate. I’ve noticed that boyfriends, husbands or partners who have never knowingly gone anywhere near the kitchen cooker need only a whiff of charcoal smoke before they’re brandishing barbecue tongs and donning aprons with hilarious legends (“Mr Good Lookin’ is Cookin’”) and ladling loving spoonfuls of their homemade barbecue sauce over spitting drumsticks. (It always contains “a special secret ingredient” – tabasco).

Maybe the scent of charred meat takes men back to the good old days of hunter-gathering, since it clearly gives them great joy to watch their loved ones pick up bones (whether drumsticks, lamb chops or spare ribs) and chew the sweet, juicy meat. Indeed, eating with our fingers satisfies a deep primal urge for most of us – I suspect that gnawing on bones is one of the few purely textural pleasures left to us in western cuisine.

What is certain is that while I do all the cooking in the house, my husband insists on manning (well it’s all in the word) the outdoor grill. And though he tries his best – gets the barbie hot and the coals glowing – as soon as the food sizzles onto the grid a dreamy, barbecue-scented contentment envelops the cook, fogging his concentration. He turns up the music, pours himself a glass of wine and goes for a wander around the garden. By the time he ambles back every sausage and kebab is burnt. It’s small consolation to know his brother is the same and once charcoaled a whole fillet of beef, having been distracted by a football result.

Few of us are brave enough to grill a whole beef fillet over the flames but I’m a great fan of barbecued fish, especially oily fish like mackerel. Buy super-fresh, one per person, wash thoroughly and score the flesh lightly on each side. Stuff the cavity with a slice of lemon, a few garlic slithers, chilli flakes, or herb sprigs. Wrap in foil and cook for five to six minutes on each side, or until firm. Serve with garlic mayonnaise and a squeeze of lemon.

Best barbie cues

Charcoal is the single most important ingredient for success – and flavour. Use sustainably produced charcoal, as it’s unrivalled for cooking and contains no nasty chemicals or additives. Also, you can light it and be cooking in no time rather than having to wait for the additives to burn off. If you want a smoked flavour you need to add wood; one or two logs placed on the hot coals will infuse your food delectably. Invest in a chapa or plancha, a heavy-duty, flat, iron griddle for cooking pancakes, delicate fish or crumbly burgers. Or just keep it to one side ready for when things are cooked but need to be kept warm. Finally, stay at your post to ensure your food is grilled to perfection.

Lydia Brownlow was a cookery editor at Good Housekeeping Magazine and a contributor to The Daily Beast. Latterly she has been inspiring children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com

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