History Bites: Barbacoa


This week's Love Box is Greek, check it out.

You might have noticed we didn’t post a History Bite last week. Don’t fret, you’ll get two this week. This time, we’ll be taking a look at Barbacoa, our meat from last week’s Taco Box, which is (surprise surprise) super interesting.

But before we get started, I wanted to make a little disclaimer. I’m not a historian, I’m also not a writer (that’s my wife and long-suffering editor's job.) I’m just a really nerdy chef. I was having a discussion around the campfire over this holiday weekend with a friend of my father-in-law’s, who is really passionate about history. It could have been the scotch talking, but he has a really visceral connection to history. He understands the emotional connection between historical artifacts and the stories of the people behind them. I’ve never really had that, except when it comes to food. I find the history of food so fascinating because it unites us. It’s one of the things that is uniquely human. 

Roasted Corn
Cooking was fundamental to the evolution of our species, but also to the evolution of our culture. The further back you go, the more you realize everything is variations of the same thing. And this one will take us pretty far back, so let’s get into it.

Bar-ba-coa, bar-be-que. Notice any similarities?

Humans have been cooking with fire since before we were humans, literally. There’s evidence that supports controlled cooking with fire a million years back when we were homo erectus. You may not believe it if you saw me with my shirt off, but humans have really small guts. We owe these small guts all to the chemistry of cooking, which does a lot of things to our food. I’ll save the chemistry lesson for another time, but the most important thing it does is it makes the food more digestible and unlocks nutrients that would otherwise not be available for digestion. That means that as we cooked our food more and more, we had more energy available for other things like developing brains, making tools, and ultimately creating Netflix.

“Okay you lunatic, get to the point. What does this have to do with my tacos?”

Cooking helps to break food down. Tougher to chew cuts of meat that wouldn’t be suitable for a grilled steak can undergo long and slow cooking methods to break down collagen and some connective tissue. Bones can be cooked to access the nutrients in the marrow. Vegetables can be caramelized to increase the amount of available sugar. All of this can be tough to do over a direct fire, especially before the invention of metal cookware. Every locality across the world adapted to this challenge in lots of interesting ways, which has led us to the diversity of regional foods.

The one most pertinent to our beef barbacoa tacos is attributed to the Arawak-speaking peoples of modern day South America and parts of the Caribbean: the Taíno. When Spanish colonists first arrived in the Americas, they made note of the Taíno preparing a meat wrapped in leaves and suspended by a framework of greenwood sticks over a sacred fire pit they called a barbicu. 

Barbacoa was the meat that was cooked on the barbicu. Simple as that. The fresh leaves surrounding the meat steam it, and enable it to retain moisture and nutrients. The smoke from the coals gives the meat a delicious taste. The low and slow cooking method gives time for the tougher parts of the meat to break down, and for the nutrients (and flavour) to escape from the marrow if there’s a bone.

Good things catch on, migrate, and change. It’s no surprise that this cooking method and others just like it have been used all over the world in many different variations. It’s also no surprise that we pull ingredients and cooking methods from other people and cultures. This was no different hundreds or thousands of years ago than it is today. This technique made its way through South and Central America up to the North of modern day Mexico to a place called Texcoco, which is considered to be the birthplace of what we now call barbacoa.

These are the roots of our modern day barbeque, and our barbeque culture.

All modern Mexican cuisine has evolved from a fusion of these traditional cooking methods combined with influence from Spanish colonists. As pointed out in our last history bite colonization brings with it desires of tastes from home, so it’s no surprise the Spaniards brought with them livestock, ingredients, and recipes. Unfortunately they also brought a lot of destruction, and took with them chocolate and a large portion of culture and history.

Either way you shake it, we owe a lot to the Taíno people. Without them, who knows how the world would look. I for one can’t imagine a summer without barbeque. So next time you throw something on that grill, take a second to think about how it all started. I promise you, it’ll help you start to see the world in a whole new light.

Until next time.
Stay hungry,
-Mike

This week's Love Box is Greek, check it out.

Barbacoa Taco

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