The whole BBQ theme has variations that reach all over the world. But it seems to be more of an American thing than anywhere else. Especially during the summer, you can't go anywhere without hearing about a barbecue somewhere.
People are always having a barbecue for a reunion, picnic, church function, county fair, dance, etc. As a matter of fact, you probably go to these events and expect to smell some smoked meat. It's just become a part of the atmosphere.
Most people agree that the term barbecue (or BBQ as I like to use) comes from the Taino. The Taino is a group of people from the Caribbean, who called it "barbacoa" (sacred fire pit).
They would dig a pit in the ground and put a big pot in the bottom. This was to catch the dripping juices of the meat that was hung above it. Hot coals and leaves of the maguey tree were then lit and a few hours later... they would have a great big feast.
A greatly simplified description, of course, but you get the idea. That's the way they did it hundreds of years ago.
As a matter fact, this way of cooking was a long tradition of the Taino by the time Columbus and other European explorers came along to be exposed to it.
Naturally, not knowing how to cook this way, Columbus and his buddies liked what they found, along with other American traditions like sugar, rum and tobacco.
When the explorers and settlers began to move north, out of the Caribbean into the United States, they naturally carried this new way of cooking with them. And for a long time BBQ seemed to remain a southern specialty.
Fortunately for the rest of us, it has since spread all over the country. Just check out the tailgating at any professional football game.
During colonial times most of the cooked meat was pork. This was largely due to the fact that they were plentiful. Cattle were not around much back then since cotton was the major cash crop.
Pigs were allowed to run wild until it was time for a hunt.
Looking back, this was probably a big mistake, considering the major problems the south now faces with the population explosion of wild hogs.
Since these hogs ran wild and were not corn fed, their meat became tougher and more gamey. This was perfectly fine, though, with the new art of slow-cooking the meat. Slow-cooking breaks down the collagen and makes tougher meat very tender and delicious.
At the time, this system worked very well. It allowed for a ready source of food that was low maintenance. And the hunting, preparing, cooking and eating all turned out to be quite an occasion for everyone.
It was usually a time for festivity and celebration. These barbecues eventually became common as a time and place for people to gather together socially.
Ultimately they became a part of political events, church functions and any other large social gathering. All of these types of gatherings were what made the basis for the traditional Southern Barbecue.