How you answer that question depends not just on where you hail from geographically, but also on when the discussion is taking place.
Firstly, what does the Oxford English Dictionary have to say on the origin and meaning of the word? Several things, as it turns out:
‘A rude wooden framework, used in America for sleeping on, and for supporting above a fire meat that is to be smoked or dried’ – this from a description in 1697 from the explorer William Dampier.
‘An iron frame for broiling very large joints’ from Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Domesticum, Being a New and Compleat Houshold Dictionary for the Use Both of City and Country , 1736.
‘A hog, ox, or other animal broiled or roasted whole;’ from a usage in 1764 ‘I am invited to dinner on a barbicu.’
‘A large social entertainment, usually in the open air, at which animals are roasted whole, and other provisions liberally supplied.’, from a diary entry in 1733 ‘Fair and hot; Browne, barbacue; hack overset.’
‘A structure for cooking food over an open fire of wood or charcoal, usu. out of doors, and freq. as part of a party or other social entertainment’, as in ‘How to build a barbecue’ (1931)
‘An open floor on which coffee-beans, etc. may be spread out to dry’ from 1855 ( C. Kingsley Westward Ho! xix, The barbecu or terrace of white plaster, which ran all round the front.’
As for the origin of the word, it is said to come from the Spanish barbacoa, … ‘a framework of sticks set upon posts’; evidently the same as the babracot (? a French spelling) of the Indians of Guyana …’ The OED sounds almost offended when it notes that the explanation that the word comes from the French ‘barbe à queue’ which translates as from ‘beard to tail,’ is ‘an absurd conjecture suggested merely by the sound of the word.’
Whatever sort of barbecue you mean when you use the word yourself, I feel sure that a barbecue sauce of some sort is part of the plan. Before I go to a selection of barbecue sauce recipes, I want to give you an interesting early – and English - description of how to barbecue a piece of pig. It is from Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769)
To barbecue a Pig.
Dress a pig of ten weeks old as if it were to be roasted, make a forcemeat of two anchovies, six sage leaves, and the liver of the pig, all chopped very small; then put them into a marble mortar, with the crumbs of half a penny loaf, four ounces of butter, half a teaspoonful of Chyan pepper, and half a pint of red wine, beat them all together to a paste, put it in your pig’s belly and sew it up, lay your pig down at a good distance before a large brisk fire, singe it well, baste it with all the wine all the time it is roasting, when it is half roasted, put under your pig two penny loaves, if you have not wine enough put in more, when your pig is near enough, take the loaves and sauce out of your dripping pan, put to the sauce one anchovy chopped small, a bundle of sweet herbs, and half a lemon, boil it a few minutes, then draw your pig, put a small lemon or apple in the pig’s mouth, and a loaf each side, strain your sauce and pour it on them boiling hot, lay barberries, and a slice of lemon round it, and send it up whole to the table. It is a grand bottom dish. It will take four hours roasting.
What, I ask, distinguishes this dish from simple ‘roasted pork’? The constant basting with wine? It does seem that marinading/basting/saucing are essential to a barbecue from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. By the early decades of the twentieth century this marinade/baste had become decidedly more like a sauce of the gravy or condiment kind.
Of course, there are as many versions of barbecue sauce as there are cooks, so I can only give you a tiny selection. I will start with the 1920’s as this appears to be when the barbecue was really coming into its own in the USA (a previous post on the Aussie BBQ is here.)
One quart can tomatoes or tomato sauce, two medium sized onions, one-half can green cilis or three or four fresh chilis, one-fourth teaspoon black pepper, one teaspoon salt, lump of butter size of an egg. Unless meat is quite fat.
Chop vegetables and boil with salt until onions are tender. Add butter and stir until butter is melted.
A pinch of ground cloves adds to the flavor and if a hot taste is desired one little pepper called a Jap chili may be crushed and added.
San Antonio Light, 17 March, 1925
The following suggests that barbecue is a relatively new fashion in 1929. The list of ingredients is quite minimalist in the recipe given, although the quantity is certainly not. It appears in this case to be intended as a marinade.
There is no question that barbecue meats have become extremely popular. The following recipe for barbecue sauce will make them even more delicious.
2 quarts vinegar
4 cups salt
3 tablespoons cayenne pepper.
This is the sauce which is used to barbecue a whole pig out-of -doors, but it may be used in oven-roasting a fresh ham. It is used to baste the meat frequently. The sauce is heated thoroughly and basting should be frequent and liberal.
Galveston Daily News, 19 January, 1929
And from another newspaper from the same region in the same year, a quite informative article which illustrates the state of BBQs at the time, and the concept of marinade-as-sauce:
THE KITCHEN BARBECUE.
The old-fashioned barbecue has indeed passed through much transition to arrive at the modern version of the term. A whole animal fastened onto a Spit slowly revolving over a bed of hot coals is a real sight for one in quest of adventure.
To the present day we find that the term "barbecue" more often is applied to the broiling of the separate cuts of the animal. Thick steaks and chops of all kinds are delicious when barbecued, as are roasts of beef, mutton and lamb. The term also is commonly applied to the out-of-doors steak broil and for the cooking of fowls which are broiled whole or in halves.
The barbecue sauce, which virtually is a necessary addition to the meat during the broiling period, for the most part, is not exactly the original sauce, since many of the old recipes were known only to the chefs who were expert in cooking large quantities of meats, but it has been found to be very satisfactory.
In many cases, it is hardly possible or practical to try to barbecue over an open fire, so many of us resort to our kitchen. In the following recipe the general directions may be applied equally well to other cuts and kinds of meat.
Select a slice of porterhouse about three and one-half inches thick. Wipe it with a clean damp cloth, and skewer it firmly into position. Place the meat on a broiler in an oven which has beeu preheated. After the meat has been seared on both sides, lower the flame and baste the meat with the barbecue sauce every few minutes. Keep turning the meat so that it will be basted evenly and cooked throughout. Cook approximately 30 to 40 minutes and serve on a platter immediately upon taking it from the oven.
The remaining sauce can be thickened with browned flour and served as gravy with the meat.
1 cup butter.
2 cups water or stock.
1 cup vinegar.
½ tablespoon dry mustard.
2 tablespoons sugar.
1 teaspoon salt.
1 teaspoon chili sauce.
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon tabasco sauce.
1 teaspoon black pepper.
1 teaspoon paprika
1 small onion, minced.
1 clove garlic.
Saute the minced onion in part of the butter. Melt the remaining butter in the boiling water or stock
and vinegar. Add the Worcestershire sauce and tabasco sauce. Combine the dry ingredients and add to
the boiling liquid, also add the onion mixture. Boil gently for half an hour. Strain the sauce, and it is then ready to be used in basting the meat.
San Antonio Express, 17 July, 1929
In the Barbecue is any four footed animal - be it mouse or mastodon - whose dressed carcass is roasted whole.... at its best it is a fat steer, and must be eaten within an hour of when it is cooked. For if ever the sun rises upon Barbecue, its flavor vanishes like Cinderella's silks, and it becomes cold baked beef - staler in the chill dawn then illicit love.William Allen White (b. 1868)