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What is barbecue?

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 15, 2016

At Eater, Chris Fuhrmeister hits on another topic near to my amateur linguist heart: policing the word “barbecue”:

When it comes to American barbecue — I certainly won’t attempt to set ground rules for other barbecue cultures across the globe — there are absolute rights and wrongs. Sure, there’s some room for interpretation, but good-intentioned “barbecue” lovers across this country are blaspheming day in and day out. Before declaring what barbecue isn’t, it’s best to define what it is: pork that’s slow-cooked with smoke.

This is controversial, because “barbecue” is also used to mean:

It’s also odd because, as Fuhrmeister notes, it’s an American controversy, and Americans tend to play faster and looser with food words than people elsewhere. Cognac has to be from Cognac, champagne from Champagne, and so on. Americans have lots of different regional words and practices when it comes to food (soda vs pop, sub vs hoagie, etc.), and we’re definitely competitive when it comes to where and how food is made best, but we’re generally pretty pluralist about definitions. Which is probably why “barbecue” has metastasized to mean so many different but related things.

I tried to come up with a shortlist of honest-to-goodness American food word debates.


  1. What is barbecue?

  2. Is a hot dog a sandwich?

  3. Is Chicago-style pizza really pizza?

  4. Is it donut or doughnut?

  5. Is a wrap a burrito?

  6. Why do we say “chai tea” when “chai” means “tea”?

From here you start to get into all the ways Americans abuse imported food words, which is a much longer list. British English also has a debated distinction between cake and biscuit that I don’t fully understand. Some of us like “is a patty melt a hamburger?,” because the ontology of hamburger is pretty complex stuff. But this is enough to get started.

Donut/doughnut is a straight-up style dispute, and doesn’t have anything to do with definitions. “Are hot dogs sandwiches?” is almost too much about definitions — there’s no history, no implied values, or real stakes. Chicago vs NYC pizza is a regional value rivalry posing as a definitional one: press people, and they’ll say, “yeah, what they make is pizza, it’s just not as good as ours.”

Barbecue is the debate that has everything. It’s a regional rivalry with value attached to it, that’s making definitional claims. And there are so many possible distinctions! Texas and Carolina partisans might unite to reject “barbecue” to mean “cookout,” but fall apart again over the merits of beef vs pork. You can even vote on it; the voting will decide nothing. It is an infinite jewel.