15 January 2007

And now, a digression about Pirates and Barbecue

The word Buccaneer presents many imaginative images. Swashbuckling heroes, desperate sea battles between ponderous ships, daring and poetic romance, even despicable and foul treachery. When you think of a buccaneer though, you likely don't imagine your father, sweating beside a Weber grill filled with too little charcoal and too much lighter fluid, wielding tongs and hot dogs like some primordial fire worshipper dressed in a denim apron emblazoned with the words, "real men cook with oxidizing exothermic chemical reactions!"

The startling, if not bewildering truth though, is that Pop, no matter how culinary challenged he may be, is closer to the real buccaneer image than any of the others i've mentioned with the potential exception of foul treachery.

The word Buccaneer, is a french word, which according to some has a literal translation as "Hunter of Wild Oxen." Not being particularly fluent in French I can not verify that, but it sounds like something they would say. In any event, Buccaneer, is the english derivative of the word boucanier which means "user of a boucan." Hardly a revealing phrase that. One wonders exactly what a boucan may be and why I just don't get to the point.

Etymology is perhaps the ultimate pursuance of pedantry. Those that revel in it also revel in the most trivial of details. For instance. It's a widely held misconception that the word barbecue is derived from the french phrase "barbe à queue" meaning "from beard to tail," a reference to cooking an entire pig whole. Despite the fact that pigs rarely sport beards this pseudo-etymology has entered the common lexicon as truth. Trust me, this is relevant.

Boucan, as we've already established, is a french word. It refers to a frame of green wood used to cook and smoke meat over open coals and is in turn derived from the Tupi word, mukem rendered in Portugese as moquem. The Tupi, for purposes of edification are an aboriginal tribe from northern brazil, but it isn't so much the Tupi we're concerned with. Boucan referred not only to the frame work that held the meat, but also to the meat itself, both on the hoof and prepared.

The word came into common usage in the late 1600s by french settlers working as hunters in the Spanish West Indies. When the Spanish outlawed the practice and drove these French hunters from their jobs, those same hunters turned to a life of crime aimed chiefly at avenging themselves against the Spanish. What reason the Spanish had for such an action is unclear, although it was likely prompted by the bitter racism and nationalism that was prevalent at the time. The French you see, were no friends of the Spanish, and the Spanish for their part felt much the same for the French.

These Boucaniers then turned into lawless bandits, and around the same time the word was anglicized into Buccaneer it came to be used by the English to describe a pirate of any nationality that made war chiefly against the Spanish. It wasn't long before the term was used to describe practically any pirate or seemingly piratical behavior.

The French, for their part, continued to use the root word boucan to refer to smoke cured meat, open fire cooking and the framework of wood used in said cooking. They even used the word to refer to similar frameworks of wood used as elevated bedding by many inhabitants of the West Indies to avoid nighttime visits from serpents, much in the same way that the Tupi used the word mukem.

"What," you may ask, "has any of this to do with my father and his incapacity to cook hot-dogs to an even temperature over his poorly crafted fire?" I'm glad you asked. The French word boucan derived from the Tupi word mukem. On the Spanish held island of Hispaniola the aboriginal tribe Arawakan called the same framework of wood and the meat it was used to cook as barbacoa in their language, Taino. Hispaniola, part of which is now known as Haiti, was much contented among the european nations and indeed has remained divided politically into the 21st century. This cultural and linguistic mishmash brought the terms boucan and barbacoa into more or less synonymous use for the cooking of meat over open pits of coals. Barbacoa is the word from which the now chiefly, although hardly exclusive, American practice of barbecue finds its origins.

So, you see, your father, in his comical apron and using his inefficient, although flavor enhancing fuel is no mere backyard cooker, he epitomizes the swashbuckling buccaneer.

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