I have never lived above the Mason Dixon line. I was born in Durham, North Carolina (regrettably at Duke and not UNC). Just before kindergarten, my family moved to Palm City, Florida. And while one can certainly argue that Florida is not part of the South, it was the time I spent there that I developed a strong love for the ocean, where my imagination flourished, and where I learned the simple truth that if you’re at the beach, you’re eating fried chicken.
The summer after 5th grade my family moved back to Durham, right back to the house where we had lived in my early years. I lived in Durham, soaking up Southern culture, Southern food and Southern life, until I left for college. In Baltimore, attending the Maryland Institute College of Art, I learned many things. I learned that I hate when people use the phrase “force you to reconsider.” I learned that sometimes hipsters make the best chimichangas. And I learned that people in the North (and yes, I consider everything north of Richmond to be “the North”) don’t know the difference between a cookout and a barbeque.
There are a lot of nuances to the word “barbeque” in the South; what someone means differs by region, personal taste and even how their family approaches the concept. The constant, however, is that when a person in the South says the word “barbeque,” they mean it as a noun. As in: “this barbeque is delicious.” Also, they never, ever, ever mean hot dog or hamburger.
Frequently, as a resident of a northern state with friends from around the country, I get invited to barbeques in the summer months. Inevitably, every one of these barbeques looks the same. We arrive bearing some sort of party gift, usually a pie. There is beer-drinking, laughing, chip-eating. Then someone suggests that it’s time to eat! And with much ado, hot dogs and hamburgers (brats if we’re feelin’ fancy) get thrown on the grill. Every time I have only one thought: THAT IS NOT BARBEQUE. Followed by excitement because I love hamburgers. (I’m not an asshole, really.)
The difference, you see, is that in the South, “barbeque” refers to meat, usually pig, slow-cooked over indirect heat. Then, depending on where you’re from, it is sauced, pulled, sliced and served. A “cookout” is the act of cooking out, grilling, usually hot dogs and hamburgers. Cookout: verb. Barbeque: noun.
Within the South there are huge variations on what barbeque means. Even within my own home state there are two camps. If you live in western North Carolina you may consider barbeque to be slow-cooked pork, pulled in a tomato-and-vinegar-based sauce. In eastern North Carolina you would also slow cook and pull your pork, but you would never allow a tomato into the sauce. A Georgian might put a mustard-based sauce on their barbeque, while a Texan might call beef brisket “barbeque.” And while each Southerner regards barbeque through a different lens, they all make the distinction that barbeque is tenderly cooked, much-loved meat and a cookout is the act of cooking something on the grill.
To summarize, while hot dogs, hamburgers, grilled chicken and sausage can all be delicious, they’re not barbeque. And the act of cooking them is not barbequing. It is a cookout. You could certainly make barbeque at a cookout, but you could never cook out at a barbeque. Make sense?
Elena Rosemond-Hoerr is a photographer and writer based out of Baltimore. Born and raised in North Carolina, Elena writes about Southern food culture, blending stories and recipes to bring a piece of the South to everyone. You can find her delicious recipes on her blog, Biscuits and Such, and follow her food musings on Twitter @biscuitsandsuch.