The term ‘barbecue’, referring to a cooking method was certainly known in England well before the First Fleet departed for Botany Bay. But it was little used in Australia until the mid-1800s, and then normally in reference to events held in America.The first use of the term for an Australian event seems to be a report of the Waverley Bowls Club’s Leg o’ Mutton Barbecue in 1903.

The term barbecue has its origin in central America. The Spanish invaders heard the native Americans refer to a wooden frame they used for drying and smoking various types of fish and game as a ‘barbacoa’. The word evolved into ‘barbecue’ and by the 1730s had made its way into the verse of  Alexander Pope, which was subsequently quoted in Dr Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary.

Johnson’s definition was ‘A term used in the West-Indies for dressing a hog whole; which, being split to the backbone, is laid flat upon a large gridiron, raised about two foot above a charcoal fire, with which it is surrounded.”

The tradition of the barbecue as an event, not just a cooking method, first took hold in America, particularly in the south. Barbecues were often associated with political campaigns, where the candidate funded the food and plentiful supplies of drink in an effort to curry favour with voters. These events, where whole beasts were roasted over pits of coals, were widely reported in the Australian press. The menu, according to one article, was ‘generally limited to meat, bread, beer, wine and cigars’.

Barbecue or bullock roast?

Giant public feasts including whole roasted bullocks certainly occurred  throughout Australia’s early days. William Wentworth celebrated the departure of the unpopular Governor Darling with a huge roast at Vaucluse House in 1831. In 1884, the townsfolk of Mudgee celebrated the arrival of the railway with a ‘bullock roast‘ as well as a civic reception, torchlight parade and ball.

But they weren’t called barbecues. In fact, the general population needed the term explained to them for decades. In 1861, the Newcastle Chronicle and Hunter River District News drew upon Johnson’s definition to inform readers that ‘ A hog barbecu’d is a West Indian term, and means a hog roasted whole, stuffed with spice, and basted with Madeira wine’. In Australia’s fledgling coffee industry, the word retained a meaning more closely related to the original ‘barbacoa’. For coffee growers, the barbecue (sometimes spelled barbacue) was the rack on which the coffee berries were cured.

By 1887,  the definition had expanded. The Tasmanian told readers that “A barbecue is a term used in America to express any great gathering of people where any large animal, such as an ox or a hog, is dressed whole and partaken off by those assembled”.  By 1915, though, there was a much more modern definition, printed as a throw-away in many newspapers: “What’s a barbecue, Dad?” “A barbecue is an affair where you smack your lips over grub you’d turn your nose up at at home.”

It was in the early 1900s that events called barbecues emerged in Australia. The Waverley Bowls Club function was almost certainly among the first. According to a report in the Sydney broadsheet the Arrow, it failed to provide any actual legs of mutton, but offered lamb and pork. In 1920, Sydney papers advertised a public barbecue in Barbecue feature, Australian Women's WeeklyMartin Place to promote Peace Bonds. “A bullock given by the Master Butchers’ Association will be roasted in one piece…The fires will be lighted at 6 a.m., in one of the sand drays of the City Council, and will be ready at 1 o’clock,” they promised.

At this time, the backyard barbecue was still well in the future. It took decades to move from the public to the private, from the whole beast to chops and sausages. But by the 1950s the idea of the barbecue had taken hold, eventually becoming an ingrained part of our national psyche. The Australian Women’s Weekly’s outdoor living feature in 1953 gave detailed instructions for building your own brick barbecue.

Then, in the mid-’60s, the gas barbecue arrived. American purists, who hold that smoke is the essential element of a barbecue, would not accept that sizzling a few chops on a metal plate was in any way the real thing. But gas-fuelled ‘barbecues’ popped up in parks all over the country, sausage sizzles sprouted outside hardware stores and election-day polling booths and Australia was even promoted to the Americans by Paul Hogan ‘bunging another shrimp on the barbie’. In its various forms, the barbecue was here to stay.