The Media Needs to Acknowledge the African American History in BarbecueRoundup
tags: African American history, food, media, culinary history, Barbecue
Adrian Miller is a James Beard Award-winning food writer and the author of Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.
Part of the reckoning in the year plus since George Floyd’s murder has been a newfound awareness of how racism has deeply burrowed itself into aspects of our culture that might seem to have little to do with race.
One great example: how the media portrays the art of barbecue. Piles of smoked meat have long been portrayed as “dude food,” — the ultimate in male indulgence — but now it’s more like “White dude food” than ever before. And that’s because since the 1990s, a robust barbecue-related media has overly celebrated White men and greatly diminished the contributions that African American men and women have made to this beloved food. Restoring barbecue’s true history paints a much different picture, one that might even change how we think of piles of smoked meat.
Barbecue’s early history in the American South is hazy. Most of it isn’t documented, and what was chronicled by Europeans is fragmented and sometimes unreliable. We know that in the 1600s, European colonists and enslaved Africans in Virginia created a style of cooking meat that was based on techniques used by the indigenous people in that area. The method of cooking whole animals (most commonly, cows, pigs and sheep) over a trench filled with burning hardwood coals was interchangeably called “Virginia barbecue,” “pit barbecue” and “Southern barbecue.”
What followed was not the tale of historical exclusion we might anticipate. Instead, quite the opposite was true. Newspapers, magazines and travelogues — the dominant media of the 18th and 19th centuries — did much to establish African Americans as barbecue’s indispensable cooks.
Blackness and barbecue were wedded in the public imagination because old-school barbecue was so labor intensive. Someone had to clear the area where the barbecue was held, chop and burn the wood for cooking, dig the pit, butcher, process, cook and season the animals, serve the food, entertain the guests and clean up afterward. Given the racial dynamics of the antebellum South, enslaved African Americans were forced to do that work. The media, in turn, took note that a barbecue, as a social event, was a Black experience from beginning to end. Dr. John Brevard Alexander underscored this point when reminiscing about an 1840 barbecue outside of Charlotte in support of Whig presidential candidate Gen. William Henry Harrison: “The neg were busy all morning keeping up fires, carrying water, setting tables, etc. After the white people were served, the negroes helped themselves, bountifully of the abundant repast.”
As the United States territory expanded, everywhere slavery went, barbecue soon followed. Countless articles informed readers that authentic Southern barbecue could only be made at the hands of a “colored” or “Negro man.”
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