Folks have been barbecuing in Western Kentucky since there have been folks in Western Kentucky which makes the tracing of any specific origin of barbecuing in our region as futile as trying to trace down the history of human beings hunting for food or harnessing fire. Barbecuing (or some form of cooking over a fire) is humanity’s oldest form of cooking, so one can imagine that just as soon as early man learned to cultivate a spark that they were dry rubbing their wooly mammoth ribs and drooling over the tantalizing sounds of sizzle and spit. Such was the case in our region—a fire combined with meat equals barbecue.
(Interesting side note: In the annals of recorded history, wooly mammoth meat has actually appeared on a menu. In 1951, at the 47th annual meeting of the Explorer’s Club at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, the dinner menu included Pacific spider crab, green turtle soup, bison steaks, cheese straws, and a morsel of mammoth meat. No word on what it tasted like, though we doubt it resembled chicken.)
We turn then to the origin of the word itself—barbecue—the mere utterance of which usually triggers a phantosmia, an olfactory hallucination, of smoke and roasting fat. The etymology of the word takes us to ancient Taino peoples of the Caribbean whose word “barabicu,” meaning a sacred fire pit, was borrowed by Spanish explorers in the 16th century and brought back to Europe as the word “barbacoa,” which ultimately denoted a cooking method of roasting meat on a wooden structure over a firepit. The word then arrived with the Spanish on the shores of the New World, in the future southeastern United States, and became barbecue, with all its variant spellings: barbeque, BBQ, bar-b-q, and the lesser used, but increasingly fashionable, “Barbie Queue.”
(Interesting side note: The Barbie doll has her own barbecue playset. “Barbie BBQ Time” comes complete with a doll in a fetching pink and aquamarine midriff, a grill, two chairs, hot dogs, and iced tea.)
How about the pig then? Of course, barbecue isn’t restricted to any particular genus and species. One could barbecue a skink if one took the notion. Mammal, fowl, reptile, amphibian…they’re all fair game (pun intended). However, when talking about Western Kentucky barbecue, and southern US barbecue in general, we’re talking primarily about pork. Funny, though, that the pig is no way native to North America. Besides the dog, the pig is the oldest animal known to be domesticated, and archaeological records suggest that their domestication began in Near East countries (Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, etc.) around 11,000 BC. Perhaps this was a self-fulfilling prophecy that would make Memphis, TN one of the BBQ capitals of the United States. Yet, if one were truly looking for the BBQ capital of the US one would have to look at Tampa, Florida. Hard to believe, but it looks like Tampa is the city of origin for pork in the United States for in 1539, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto first landed there, his first stop on our shores having come from Cuba. He brought pigs with him, the first known pigs in the New World, and some of them escaped. Thanks, de Soto!
(Interesting side note: Speaking of grills and Hernando de Soto, the grille emblem on the Chrysler Desoto often featured a profile of the explorer along with a winged bird. The kind of bird is unknown, but if it was, it could likely be barbecued.)
So, when did the pig, and thus pork barbecue, get to our area? Well, that’s tough to narrow down, though it’s pretty certain that the native Chickasaw tribes who first inhabited this region were not farming pigs. For protein, they relied on the indigenous species in the forests and rivers. In fact, even up until the early 1800’s, it doesn’t appear as if pigs had been introduced to Western Kentucky (at least not widely). This is evidenced further by the journals of Lewis and Clark (yes, that William Clark who ultimately named and platted out the town of Paducah). Lewis and Clark scrupulously recorded not only the types of animals they killed and consumed on their 2 1/2 year journey, but the number: 1001 deer, 375 elk, 227 bison, 62 antelope, 35 bighorned sheep, 43 grizzly bears, 23 black bears, 113 beaver, 16 otter, 104 geese, 46 grouse, 9 turkeys, 48 plovers, 18 wolves, 190 Indian dogs, and 12 horses. Not once is pig mentioned.
(Interesting side note: During lean times, Lewis and Clark supplemented their diet with “portable soup,” an early version of the bouillon cube. Lewis brought 193 pounds of the stuff on the journey, having purchased it in from a chef named Francois Baillet in Philidelphia for $289.50.)
So answer the darn question already…where does Western Kentucky barbecue come from? Pig farming in Western Kentucky certainly fell in sync with other types of farming in the region, though even into the late 19th century, beef was a preferred meat over pork. At the same time, in some of the earliest editions of the Paducah Sun we have, church picnics and family gatherings were often referred to as “barbecues,” but who knows what they were actually eating at those functions. The earliest reference we can find to barbecue that resembles Western Kentucky barbecue as we know it today, comes from a May 8, 1902 edition of the Sun. W. M. Phillips, later called “ the barbecue man” in Paducah, took out an ad that said, “This is to let the public know that I have opened my Barbecue, open air. My wagon will be at Fourth and Broad streets. I have four kinds of meat: I have both Pig and Hog, Sheep and Mutton. I barbecue over pit, not in stove. I will try to accommodate you, as I always do. I give you the worth of your money—if you don’t want too much.”
(Interesting side note: Mr. Phillips would also deliver barbecue to your home—pork for 25 cents a pound, mutton for 30).
The rest of our Western Kentucky’s barbecue history is, well…history. Help us fill in the gaps from here. Do have a memory of barbecue in Paducah—an amusing anecdote, a favorite old joint, an unheralded pitmaster? Let us know.
And forgive the frenetic nature of this particular post. I am, after all, at work during the BBQ festival.
For more information about deliciousness, visit us at the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.