The barbecuing pirates of Tortuga
October 15th, 2012
03:15 PM ET
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Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of barbecue across the United States. Dig in.

Did pirates barbecue? Arrrrgh, of course they did, though the barbecuing may actually have come before the buccaneering.

Around 1630, the small island of Tortuga off the northwestern coast of Hispaniola (today, the Dominican Republic and Haiti) became a haven for a motley lot of vagabonds and refugees - deserters, escaped slaves, and shipwrecked sailors of all nationalities. They would sneak over to Hispaniola to hunt the wild cattle and pigs that roamed the sparsely populated coast, taking whatever they bagged back to Tortuga to avoid the local authorities.

These hunters discovered they could sell dried meat, hides, and lard to planters and ship captains, and soon they became known as “boucaniers.” The term derived from the Tupi word boucan, meaning a grate on which meat was slowly cured over a small fire. The hunters of Tortuga used such grates to dry their meat for sale and to cook feasts for themselves.

In his book The Buccaneer’s Realm (2007), Benerson Little describes a typical “boucanier barbecue.” To create the boucan, they pounded four forked sticks, each four feet long and about the diameter of a man’s arm, into the ground, creating a four-foot by three-foot rectangle. Next, they placed crosspieces in the forks to create a frame, then laid sticks lengthwise and crosswise to form a grill.

Pork or beef were the most common meats at these proto-barbecues, though goat, fish, turtle, and anything else on hand might be used. A dressed carcass was placed on its back atop the grill, its belly cavity rubbed with a marinade of lime juice, salt, and dried crushed pimento (that is, allspice). A nearby fire provided a constant supply of coals, which were shoveled beneath the boucan and refreshed continually while the meat cooked.

At serving time, the meat would be carved into hunks and slices and delivered to the tables on large leaves. Diners ate with just knives and fingers, and they dunked their meat into a calabash gourd filled with a mixture of lime juice, salt, and allspice. Large quantities of wine and rum punch accompanied the feast.

It didn’t take long for the boucaniers - or, as they soon became known, “buccaneers” - to realize that Spanish treasure ships offered a more likely source of wealth than selling cured meat. They took to the sea, sailing the Spanish Main and attacking Spanish galleons and sloops, then retreating back to the islands with their loot. And, no doubt, celebrating their success with a little pirate-style barbecue.

Today's installment comes courtesy of Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper and author of "Barbecue: the History of an American Institution". Follow him on Twitter at @mossr.

Delve into more barbecue goodness from the Southern Foodways Alliance blog as they prepare for their 2012 symposium, Barbecue: An Exploration of Pitmaster, Places, Smoke, and Sauce

Previously - Snoot sandwiches and South Carolina barbeque and the human condition and Drink like a pirate

soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. internet marketing

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    July 10, 2014 at 9:44 am |
  2. Harry

    All covered in James A. Michener's CARIBBEAN, written decades ago. Old news.

    October 19, 2012 at 4:37 am |
    • Shaved

      Sorry to have wasted your time, old man. There are some of us who don't know everything and would like to learn. What's that I hear? It's your ACLF calling you back home. Don't forget to replace the tennis balls on your walker – and have an ice day.

      October 19, 2012 at 6:43 am |
      • aRTHURrrrr

        all of this is also news to me-because i also do not happen to already now everything there is to know

        October 23, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  3. Humdinger

    I remember seeing an episode of Modern Marvels on History Channel about BBQ. In the episode, it stated that if a pirate had the smell of fire smoke or smoked meat on him or in his clothes, he was referred to as a "boucan". Hence, this particular brand of pirates became known as "boucaniers" which of course was later anglicized to Buccaneers. Not sure how true that is, but helps paint a picture.

    October 17, 2012 at 10:50 am |
  4. Benerson Little

    As the author of the work cited, I feel obligated to comment. At the time I was writing The Buccaneer's Realm, I went back and forth on the question of whether Jean Baptiste Labat, who described in detail from personal experience the aforementioned boucaniers and their boucanned pig three centuries ago, meant chili pepper or allspice when he used the term "piment." I settled on allspice after originally writing chili pepper, convinced at the time that this was the more likely ingredient. Although in the few instances Labat used this term he typically meant to indicate hot chili pepper (an illustration of "piment" in his extensive work even shows a chili plant, and a "pimentade" was a mixture of chili pepper and citrus), the term unfortunately was also used in French as a synonym for "poivre de Jamaique" or "piment de la Jamaique"–allspice, that is. In both English and French of the day, similar or identical terms were often used for very different hot seasonings and they can sometimes be difficult to sort out. Consider for example that even today the meaning of the term "hot pepper" often depends on context. On balance, however, as I've dug more deeply into the cooking of the era and reviewed numerous other sources, no to mention re-reading Labat, I now consider it most likely that he meant crushed chili pepper when he referred to the sauce used to baste the roasting pig, although I'm still not entirely certain. Allspice, often combined with hot chili pepper, was a common seasoning in the region at the time and works quite well as described above, making an excellent marinade for roast pork. The combination of allspice and hot pepper (Scotch bonnets) is used today in Jamaican jerk, and it's quite possible that the seasoning Labat described included both (he even mentions "poivre" once in regard to the sauce, and might have been referring to common pepper or possibly allspice). As for "bacon" being the origin of the term "boucan," I've seen no evidence for this. The words boucan, barbecue, and jerk/jerky are all of Native American origin (Tupi, Taino, and Quechuan respectively, according to scholars). Along with the words, the techniques of boucan/barbecue (which included both roasted meat as well as meat smoked for preservation) used by Europeans in the Caribbean were also learned from Native Americans.

    October 16, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  5. ALLuh

    A lot of know it alls here, please just keep your dumb opinions in you mush brains.

    October 16, 2012 at 7:43 am |
    • flossmore

      The last I heard, corn was selling for about 'a-buck-an-ear' ...... if you live in Japan!

      October 16, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  6. Keith

    Another BS story I will have to remember to tell the stupid tourist.

    October 15, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
  7. Papa Pete

    According to James Michener, author of "Caribbean", the pirates of this area loved to hunt wild boar with their dogs when ashore. The had a strong like for the "bacon" from these animals, and they became known as "bacon eaters." This later became "buccaneers" in pirate slang. It sounds like a better story than a BBQ grille.

    October 15, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • K

      Sorry, Michener is wrong and this article is correct. Read a book on it awhile ago. The following is from wikepedia. The term buccaneer derives from the Caribbean Arawak word buccan, a wooden frame for smoking meat, preferably manatee. From this became derived in French the word boucane and hence the name boucanier for French hunters who used such frames to smoke meat from feral cattle and pigs on Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic).[2] English colonists anglicised the word boucanier to buccaneer.

      October 15, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
      • Papa Pete

        I think I'll stay with Michener's story. He always did a ton of research for his books, and it's a much better story, even if not the correct one.

        October 15, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
        • Unegen

          Sure, why let reality get in the way. Dipsh!t.

          October 17, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  8. Harvey

    Man harnessed fire millions of years ago. Six hours later he invented BBQ

    October 15, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  9. JJ

    Allspice is not pimento. Allspice is "malagueta" in Spanish. It is used for cooking, as well as for making an alcohol-based external-use concoction that we call "alcoholado". And I am sure someone else brought BBQ to the region, because several caribbean cultures claim they were the first ones.

    October 15, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  10. Factchek

    Pimento is crushed chiles, allspice is pimenta, a Carribean spice. Not the same thing at all.

    October 15, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  11. T

    Barbacoa, the original word for bbq, comes from Taino language – the people who greeted Columbus in the West Indies. Given Tortuga is part of this region, I would have appreciated a reference to this root. So little is known about them.

    October 15, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • Steve

      The word barbeque origin comes from the words beard to tail "barb (beard) e que (tail)", and is what is eaten in a pig roast.
      They are not native to the america's but were brought here on boats qhixh then ran wild as no natural predators existed adn their population grew.. favorite fod for pirates, saliors, etc..

      October 15, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
      • T

        I'd love to know of your source.

        October 15, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
      • T

        Q. What is the origin of the word barbecue?
        A We have to go back to the West Indian island of Hispaniola in the seventeenth century to begin the search for this word. The local Arawakan Indians had a method of erecting a frame of wooden sticks over a fire in order to dry meat. In their language, Taino, they called it a barbacòa, which Spanish explorers borrowed.

        October 15, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  12. John Eldredge

    Actually, the author confused two different spices. "Pimento" or "pimiento" is a type of chili pepper (Capsicum annuum), whereas "pimenta" is an alternate name for allspice (Pimenta dioica), a type of tree.

    October 15, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  13. richard bonilla

    some great lore and history down in the Tortugas....nice piece....

    October 15, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  14. fakeCNNname

    I'm pretty sure barbecue was invented in least good barbecue.

    October 15, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • JIM

      there is no good barbecue. nor is there anything else good in memphis.

      October 15, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
      • fakeCNNname

        I'm feeling like you're a glass half full kinda I right? I bet you're a blast at parties!

        October 15, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • drinker75

      KC BBQ all the way! ;-)

      October 15, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
      • T

        Indeed! KC is the home of fantastic BBQ.

        October 15, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
  15. Unjolly Roger

    I went down to Aruba for a little hooba hooba but all I got was a kick right in my Dry Tortugas

    October 15, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  16. J Dog

    I heard this story when I was in college from one of my favorite professors, and am glad to see it confirmed!

    October 15, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • Bob Guevara

      My father told me this story as a kid in the 60s. He knew his stuff.

      October 15, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Dudus57

      I don't disagree, nor dispute the article, but please please please never assume CNN "confirms" anything. A grain a salt please.

      October 15, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  17. LucyRicardo

    Cory's in Memphis has the best barbecue that I have ever eaten.

    October 15, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • fakeCNNname

      Corky's...and yep, its pretty good!

      October 15, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  18. Dave

    I call bullsh!t on this.

    October 15, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  19. freshnewblog

    I love my rack of ribs.

    October 15, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • flossmore

      I like my girlfriends 'rack-of-ribs' ....!!

      October 16, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
      • Brett

        I like your girlfriends rack of ribs too!!!

        October 17, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  20. driranek

    I didn't know that allspice was crushed pimento – don't say ya never learn nothin' on CNN.

    But really, pirates inventing barbecue? Betcha Neandertals had something similar...

    October 15, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • a famous brony

      I was thinking the same thing. I always thought bbqing was kinda... the way humans first cooked... and have ever since. Put meat over fire or hot coals... Maybe turn it a bit.. cut it up...put on some spices, serve to clan..

      October 15, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • T

      They didn't event bbq, just a variant. Jeesh, read the article before posting.

      First 2 lines of the article:
      "Did pirates barbecue? Arrrrgh, of course they did, THOUGH THE BARBECUING MAY ACTUALLY HAVE COME BEFORE the buccaneering."

      October 15, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
      • Ronb

        Don't confuse him with the facts!!!

        October 15, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
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