The arrival of Labor Day traditionally means the mothballing of white pants and seersucker jackets, but - in the food world - it also marks the end of the season during which publicists avidly misuse the word "barbecue."
In the South, barbecue is usually defined as meat cooked slowly over indirect heat. Barbecue scholars may debate whether true barbecue requires wood or smoke, but anyone who's had a decent pulled pork sandwich or slice of fatty brisket will readily agree that when Americans throw burgers on the grill, the results don't count as barbecue. Yet that hasn't stopped legions of food publicists from using "barbecue" as a synonym for backyard cuisine.
"As backyard grills are firing up to celebrate the end of summer, AmazonLocal.com commissioned a survey to....uncover some interesting trends about America's obsession with all things BBQ," an e-mail pitch proclaimed last month.
I always instinctively cringe when "barbecue" describes anything but low and slow, since I suspect the casual usage does at least a minor disservice to the nation's great pitmasters: If everyday folks think they're capable of producing barbecue, they're less likely to revere the hard-working men and women who uphold the nation's smoked meat heritage.
But it lately occurred to me that my knee-jerk rejection of the term's expansion might reflect an unhealthy provincialism and pointless conservatism. Words change, and just because I don't like it doesn't mean it's wrong.
As Steven Pinker earlier this year wrote in Slate, responding to a tempest stirred up by a clumsy New Yorker essay on language, "The rules of standard English are not legislated by a tribunal but emerge as an implicit consensus within a virtual community of writers, readers, and editors. That consensus can change over time in a process as unplanned and uncontrollable as the vagaries of fashion."
There are geographic considerations, too: My Mississippi-grown understanding of "barbecue" may not have any bearing on how the word's understood in the Pacific Northwest. Although I'm more accustomed to different regions using different words for the same thing (i.e. soda and pop), it's surely just as valid for speakers from California and South Carolina to use the same word for different things. And, according to data collected by the North American Regional Vocabulary Survey, that's exactly what's occurring in the U.S.
Researchers asked 447 Americans "What would you call cooking outside over a charcoal grill in the summertime?" According to results published in 2005, more than half of the Southerners polled said "grilling out" (as distinct from "grilling," which wasn't used by a single Southerner) or "having a cookout."
By contrast, in the western U.S., one respondent said "grilling"and one respondent said "having a cookout." The most popular answer, by far, was "barbecue," provided by 93 percent of the survey takers. The numbers were similar in greater New York City, where 94 percent of respondents said "barbecue."
"The data show that NYC and the West (including Seattle, I trust), like Canada, overwhelmingly use the term barbecuing in a generic sense to mean any sort of cooking outside over a charcoal grill in the summertime, regardless of what is being cooked," says lead researcher Charles Boberg of McGill University.
"In the Midland and South, by contrast, the generic term is grilling out, with barbecue reserved for the more specific sense of preparing certain meats in certain ways," he continues. "Southerners are sometimes surprised when northerners invite them to a "barbecue" and fish or grilled vegetables are on the menu."
In Canada, Boberg says, the sentence "I'm going to grill those sausages on the barbecue" makes good culinary sense. Not so in the South and Midwest.
"In the Midland and Southern U.S., barbecue CAN'T really mean putting salmon steaks or shish kabobs on the grill (as far as I know), whereas in Canada (and Seattle?) it can mean that," he explains via e-mail.
Boberg was also involved in the University of Pennsylvania's Telephone Survey Project. While that survey was primarily concerned with sounds and pronunciation, two barbecue-related vocabulary questions established there's a clutch of eaters whose interpretation of barbecue hinges on sauce. (While regional tallies aren't available, it's unlikely those responses originated in the South. As the Foodways volume of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture points out, "In whole stretches of Texas, people believe that sauce is irrelevant if the meat was smoked properly.")
"Interestingly, some people who would use barbecue as a general term nevertheless recognize that this word doesn't really mean the same thing as grill," Boberg says. "What I recall from conducting and analyzing these interviews myself is that most people who made a distinction based it on sauce: Barbecue involves preparation with barbecue sauce, whereas grilling is just cooking."
The data collected by Boberg's teams appears to represent the only scholastic work on the subject of barbecue's meaning. "Unfortunately, the Dictionary of American Regional English doesn't help with understanding the regional distinction, and I don't know of any relevant dialectal studies," writes Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and language columnist for the Boston Globe.
According to Zimmer, the word's definition - at least as listed in the Oxford English Dictionary - is ripe for an overhaul.
"The OED entry doesn't look like it's been revised recently, and it's in woeful need of revamping with more American input," he says. "The noun senses for "barbecue" as a type of food and as a social occasion both make mention of animals roasted whole, which is hardly a prerequisite these days. But it's a good indication that historically "barbecue" required a long time to prepare, since an entire pig (or what have you) was being cooked."
But in the post-whole hog era, "the word has undergone various kinds of semantic expansion," Zimmer adds. So I owe an apology to AmazonLocal, which apparently didn't deserve my reflexive derision. Still, as AmazonLocal's own survey found, "Four in 10 Americans believe slow-smoked is the one true way to cook great barbecue." Glad to know I'll find a few like-minded friends in every crowd.