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Take a 'Cue From History and Get Your Grill On

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, July 3, 2007

You and George Washington may have more in common than you might think. When you pile your plate high with barbecue tomorrow, you will be engaging in a celebration deeply rooted in our nation's history.

Getting together for barbecues was a popular pastime in mid-18th-century Virginia and many other colonies. Both before and after the Revolutionary War, Washington frequented barbecues in Alexandria, along the Potomac and in Fredericksburg, as Mary V. Thompson notes in "Cornbread Nation 2," a collection of essays about barbecue organized by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Washington hosted a few barbecues of his own, giving one at Accotinck in May 1773 and buying flour "for barbecue" in August of that same year, presumably to make the bread or biscuits that are part of the meal.

These days, barbecue buns are store-bought, not homemade. And most of us don't arrive on horseback or sail as Washington and his contemporaries did. (Think of the calories burned!) But what has changed surprisingly little is the idea of gathering with family and friends to savor slow-cooked barbecue.

"Barbecue" is an amalgam from the Haitian "barbacoa" and "babracot," believed to be from Guianian Indians, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. These terms describe the practice of cooking fish and meat over a fire on a wooden grill of sticks set on posts. Today's barbecue is more apt to be prepared on a sleek stainless-steel grill fueled by propane, but the food hasn't changed much.

"Cherished" is how Lolis Eric Elie, the editor of "Cornbread Nation 2," describes barbecue in the introduction to the collection.

But is the best barbecue pork or beef? That's still hotly debated, and some would add chicken, fish and lamb to the mix.

"Though the various versions of barbecue differ from each other as much as cows differ from sheep, or as much as tomatoes differ from mustard seeds, the common themes of wood and smoke, meat and sauce, family and fellowship transcend regional rivalries and recipe differences," Elie writes. (Find barbecue recipes at http://www.washingtonpost.com/recipes.)

There wasn't an obesity epidemic in Washington's day, but the barbecue still provided a great excuse to pig out. As one plantation owner groused in 1772, "barbecues and what-not deprived some of their senses."

Go easy, however, and barbecue is not as calorically damaging as you might imagine. Two tablespoons of barbecue sauce have about 50 calories. Six ounces of barbecued beef or pork clock in at about 300 calories. Two barbecued chicken wings have about 250 calories. Six ounces of beef ribs, with most of the fat trimmed, have about 604 calories. Six ounces of pork ribs run about 550 calories. Add about 100 calories for a bun or a biscuit. All of this is sans the sides of baked beans, corn and coleslaw -- the reason that moderation is key.

In recent years, barbecue's popularity has been clouded by concerns over heterocyclic amines (HCAs) -- cancer-causing substances that are produced by grilling.

But researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the University of California Cancer Center in Davis have discovered some easy ways to significantly reduce HCAs. Among them:

· Use the microwave to partially cook meat before grilling. Be sure to discard the cooking juices. Precooking a burger for a few minutes in a microwave cuts up to 95 percent of HCAs, the scientists report.

· Flip meat about every minute on the grill. That keeps internal temperature lower and significantly cuts HCAs.

· Marinate. One study found that marinating chicken for 40 minutes with a mixture of brown sugar, olive oil, cider vinegar, garlic, mustard, lemon juice and salt cut HCAs by 92 to 99 percent.

· Sweeten your meat. Add tart cherries or other fruit to meat and chicken. They're loaded with antioxidants, which seem to help suppress HCA formation. Seasoning with garlic also seems to help reduce HCAs.

· Take your meat's temperature. Cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 to 180 degrees; ground beef, pork and lamb to 160 to 170; and beef steaks and roasts to 145 to 160. Don't cook meat to "well done," which can boost HCA levels.

· Load up on cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts a day or two before you barbecue. All contain cancer-fighting compounds that activate enzymes in our bodies to help detoxify HCAs.

And while you're waiting for the barbecue to cook, take another tip from our country's forebears, who whiled away the time playing music, singing and dancing. Or follow the example of Washington, who played "pitching the bar," thought to be a predecessor of horseshoes. In one account, he reached for the heavy iron bar and sent it whizzing through the air, "striking the ground far, very far beyond our utmost limits. We were indeed amazed." Washington observed, "When you beat my pitch, young gentlemen, I'll try again."

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