The Pirates Who Will Grill Anything

Piracy itself is ancient of days. The word pirate comes from the same Greek root as “peril” (which seems appropriate)—and you don’t get Greek roots like that without having been around for a long time. It seems likely that piracy in some form dates back to the beginning of transportation by water. There have been Ancient Greek, Roman, Phoenician, and Carthaginian pirates, post-Renaissance pirates, the Vikings, Chinese pirates, Russian pirates, Indonesian pirates, and of course the famously dangerous Barbary pirates—those Muslim marauders who swept out of ports across North Africa for a few hundred years, making the Barbary Coast a byword for danger.

Of course piracy is not relegated solely to the past, as we’ve learned from recent attacks on ships along the coast of Africa. But face it, when we think of pirates we’re probably not thinking of Asia or North Africa or even the current spate of piracy on distant shores. We’re thinking of the New World, and we’re probably thinking pirates of the Caribbean (and we would more than likely have thought of these even before the appearance of those Johnny Depp movies). The era of the New World/Caribbean pirates in fact constituted a “golden age” of piracy, dotted with such legendary figures as Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and Henry Morgan. It inspired its own genre of literature, the best-known example of which is, of course, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The explosive growth of wealth in the New World from the 1600s through the 1800s, along with trying to ship it all back to the Old World, created unparalleled opportunities for those willing to face the downside of this lifestyle. (The average life expectancy of a pirate in those days was about two years.)

So what possible connection could there be between those Caribbean pirates and cooking? Glad you asked.

The Caribbean got its name from the Carib. The Carib were violent and cannibalistic, so they were generally avoided by early explorers, and by most of the locals, as well. (As a side note, we got our word cannibal from the Carib, too—the Arawakan word Caniba referred to the Carib.) But there was enough contact to discover a few Carib traditions.

Among those traditions was a way of cooking food that Europeans found worth imitating, and someone apparently stuck around long enough to master the technique—and survived to pass along the info. The Carib would weave greenwood lattices and set them up over fires, usually of animal bones (they may have been cannibals, but it’s not all they ate). They then spread meat over the lattices to be smoke-dried. They called the technique boucan.

When shipwrecked sailors, deserters, and vagabonds began taking refuge on the islands of what was then called the West Indies, they relied for sustenance on the cattle and pigs left by earlier explorers. Without the cooking equipment they had back home (and without women to do the cooking for them), they began using the Carib’s technique of boucan. The French began calling these outcasts boucaniers, for their exotic cooking methods. In English, the French term was rendered “buccaneers.” So those desperate adventurers were named for their skill on the grill rather than for their being the terrors of the high seas.

The American-Spanish didn’t pick up the Carib name for the technique, but rather called the smoking/grilling procedure barbacoa, a word they probably adopted from the Taino, the same group from whom we got the word maize. In time, barbacoa evolved into barbecue. One wonders if the reason the term “barbecue” persisted, and not “boucan,” is because the latter term became so inextricably associated with pirates. But at least you can now enjoy knowing that, if you do have a smoker, you can also claim to be a buccaneer.

This first appeared in a slightly different form in Hungry Magazine.

© 2008 Cynthia Clampitt

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Filed under culinary history, Food, History

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