greenwood grill
A modern-day greenwood grill in use. Tim MacWelch

Burn baby burn

An open fire doesn’t just look good—it makes food taste great.

This story was originally published on

Summer is the time for that age-old custom, the barbecue cookout. But this tradition’s roots reach further back into history than you might think. For example, did you know that your barbecue owes a debt to pirates?

If you were a sailor (or pirate, or conquistador) in the Caribbean in the 1600s, you would have likely encountered the Arawakan Indians throughout the West Indies. In this warm and humid climate, meat and fish had to be cooked or dried quickly to prevent spoiling—and the native people had an efficient system of preservation. Animal foods were cooked, dried, or smoked on a rack of fresh-cut sticks over a bed of coals or a fire. In the Arawak language Taino, this cooking technique was called barbacòa. Through decades of misspellings and mispronunciations, the word eventually morphed into the lip-smacking word we use today: barbecue. These wooden racks aren’t just the source to the word barbecue. The English word buccaneer comes from the word boucan, which refers to the wooden framework for meat drying and cooking. It turns out some rough characters made their living by preserving meat on boucan racks to sell to passing ships, and occasionally they would take one of these ships. So in short order, the word buccaneer (originally, meaning jerky maker) became synonymous with the word pirate.

historical barbacòa
An image of barbacòa, based on a painting by John White, an English explorer who helped create the Roanoke settlement. Wikimedia Commons

Follow these steps to build your own boucan for traditional barbacòa:

  1. Cut some green, non-toxic saplings or branches to create the stakes and rack.
  2. Cut four stakes, one yard long, each with a side branch at the end. Carve a point on the end that doesn’t fork, and drive these into the ground, about 8 to 10 inches deep.
  3. Set two stout green wooden poles in the forks, and lay a rack of green sticks perpendicular to the poles.
  4. Maintain a nice bed of coals and low flames under the rack to grill your meats and vegetables to perfection.
greenwood grill
A modern-day greenwood grill in use. Tim MacWelch

I love roasting sweet corn this way, just as people have for centuries. And over the years, I’ve learned a lot about greenwood grills, mostly from accidents and mistakes. Now you can take advantage of that experience and save yourself some trouble.

When cooking with this grill, it’s best to:

  • Have a good bed of coals fed with hardwoods if possible.
  • Watch where the smoke goes, which shows you where your heat is going too, and place your food accordingly. Place it in the smoke for more heat, near the smoke for less heat.
  • Prop up flat stones against the legs of your grill to keep them from burning.
  • Make a small, smoky fire to slow cook and smoke your food, giving it a great flavor.
  • Use only green, non-toxic wood for the grill sticks.
  • Leave the bark on the green sticks to keep the pieces from drying out and catching fire.
  • Avoid grill sticks that are sticky or crusted with pitch or resin, like pine, spruce, and fir.
  • When cooking small items, skewer several pieces together, so that nothing falls through the grill.
  • Don’t panic when your grill sticks start to burn (not “if” they start to burn, but “when”). Move the food away from a burning stick and try to blow out the flames. If that doesn’t work, carefully pull the burning stick out and toss it in the fire. Replace with a new fresh-cut stick.
  • Support a sagging grill with an extra forked stick or stake propping it up underneath.
  • Don’t let the flames get tall enough to reach the underside of the grill sticks, especially if they are covered in grease. This is a sure way to light the whole rack on fire.

Tim MacWelch is the resident survival expert at Outdoor Life, and has been a survival instructor for two decades. He’s also the author of multiple New York Times Bestsellers. You can sign up for classes with Tim via this link.