"The story of barbecue is the story of America. Settlers arrive on great unspoiled continent. Discover wondrous riches. Set them on fire and eat them."
— Real Barbecue, by Greg Johnson and Vince Staten
In the current Age of Trump, one might muse the story of America continues to be setting things on fire. But I digress.
Regardless of the nationalistic urge to take credit where no credit is due, barbecue more likely than not is the oldest form of cooking known to man... or earlier versions of man and thus predates America by millennia. Long before Homo sapiens began to walk erect and complain of lower back pain, earlier branches of the evolutionary tree had discovered fire was a really cool thing. It warmed them in their cold caves, cast light upon the darkness and cooked all kinds of things they had previously eaten raw, assuming those things hadn't eaten them first.
Notwithstanding the questionably sane act of eating raw cookie dough — and the whole raw food movement for that matter — early man found cooking food preferable to eating it raw. For starters, cooked food didn't fight back. For another, it tasted better. And while the earliest controlled use of fire was figured out by our Homo habilis ancestors, it was left to Homo erectus to actually figure out the cooking angle. That angle pretty much consisted of tossing hunks of meat on hot coals. In other words, barbecuing.
They didn't call it barbecuing, naturally. They didn't call it anything. They didn't have language yet, just proto barbecue. This is, of course, the state of culinary evolution that anchors the paleo movement and those of us unaffected by that particular affectation can only give thanks things continued to evolve, food-wise.
There is, in fact, a body of literature — OK, debate — that postulates the act of cooking as being inexorably entwined with human evolution. We are the only animal that cooks its food. The theory goes that Homo erectus sprung from earlier Homos because the act of cooking increased food efficiency and led to the development of a smaller and more efficient digestive system, thus, like a plant that can channel its energy into producing leaves or fruit but not both efficiently, led to greater growth of brain instead of gut and thus begot us. Or at least earlier versions of us.
Which brings us to, well, no one's really sure where that brings us, least of all me. The history of barbecue is a bit hazy, not to say smoky. But let's be honest for a moment. If we brush aside the alleged moral and ethical arguments we are often browbeaten with by vegetarians and vegans over our carnivorous ways, no one is going to seriously argue raw meat smells more appealing than cooked meat. It is that truism that led humankind to follow its nose in a direct line to its stomach and thus was born the act of barbecuing.
And contrary to current stereotypes, the first barbecuers were women, since hunter-gathers societies tended to be organized around males hunting and women cooking. Why women ever gave that up and turned it over to men is beyond me. But the ultimate irony of that abdication is the modern barbecue/grilling absurdity of men, whose job may be no more involved than flipping burgers on the barbie, grabbing all the glory, while women do the rest of the meal's work. C'mon, ladies, take back your birthright and grab that flipper from your man's hands!
Ultimately, we'll never know the origins of barbecue, be they biblical burnt offerings to God or serendipitous acts of accidental brilliance. But one thing was abundantly clear when I moved to Canada 'lo those many years ago. Of all the cuisines of the far corners of the planet, barbecue had failed to establish a foothold in the Great White North. Perhaps that had something to do with the North American roots of one branch of the family barbecue tree that found fecund soil in the Old South. Southerners, as a rule, aren't all that into cold weather. So while Asian cuisines from China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Burma and Vietnam were well represented, as were Indian, Pakistani and Afghani, and naturally French, German, English and even Scandinavian, there was nowhere to be found in my early homes of Montreal and Toronto, real barbecue.
There were places that called themselves barbecue — Tony Roma's Place for (Boiled) Ribs, Swiss Chalet and St. Hubert's restaurants serving chicken not far removed from rotisserie birds available at any good supermarket — but there was no Real Barbecue. No mean cuts of brisket and pork butt smoked over low heat for hours and hours until they reached the magic moment at 190°F when their collagen melted into yummy goodness, no slow-smoked side ribs from the noble swine that pulled cleanly from the bone and made my tastebuds explode in ovation.
That was then; this is now. And finally, at the dawn of a new century, real barbecue began trickling into Canada. It wasn't long before that trickle was a swift-flowing stream and then a veritable tsunami. There was a golden moment, almost a decade ago, when I was fortunate enough to have to pass two places serving real barbecue on my walk home from Creekside to Nita Lake.
And once again, on this August long weekend poetically dubbed British Columbia Day (née Civic Holiday) Whistler will be awash with some of the best barbecue you'll ever taste as the Canadian National BBQ Championships encamp at Creekside once again and the weekend's fest known lovingly as the Bulleit Bourbon Canadian National, etc., etc., fill the original base of Whistler mountain with the kind of smoke we all want to smell, not the kind that's been hanging around this week.
If you've never been before — and you're not of the VorV persuasion — you should come down and grab a taste of perfection. As my friends who toil away in F&B often say, "You can't buy this good." That's because even the most committed barbecue restaurant is, nonetheless, a restaurant. And there's an unbridgeable gulf between commercial food preparation in volume and the slavish love and attention the teams visit on their competition barbecue.
So head down for the dinners and enjoy all-you-can-eat ribs Friday or all you can eat everything barbecued — including suckling swine — on Saturday. Or come by Sunday and sample the same stuff the teams will be turning in to the judges. Oh, and feel good about it because you'll be helping the work done in war-torn locales by Playground Builders.
Heck, you could say it's downright righteous.