Over the years, the meaning of barbecue has been distorted for many Americans. It has become synonymous with barbecue flavored Lays and Pringles, overly sweet sauces and backyard hot dogs on the Fourth of July, just to name a few. This article is not a critique of fried food or home-grilled franks, however. I love “barbecue” chips and frequently cook up hamburgers for my family on the grill. Yet however much I may enjoy these foods, they pale in comparison to true Southern barbecue cooked long-and-slow.
Barbecue is, first and foremost, a deeply African American food. I use the phrase “African American” (rather than just “African”, “American”, or “Black”) in order to emphasize the complex origins of this cuisine. Barbecue took its first breath in the early 1500s, when enslaved Africans found inspiration in the local Native American cuisine. As Africans sought to preserve their autonomy in the face of extreme persecution, they developed a food culture unlike any other. Because of this, barbecue is intensely political; it becomes an invaluable tool for tracing the struggles of Black Americans throughout history.
Like so many aspects of American culture — jazz, “street style” and common slang — barbecue’s African roots are often erased while white Americans receive the credit. The Huffington Post points out that of the thirty-six Barbecue Hall of Fame inductees, only five of them are Black. Additionally, the “Epic Barbecue Tour of Texas” by Eater fails to include even one Black-owned barbecue joint on its list. So blinded are these critics by eurocentric attitudes that they fail to recognize the original inventors of barbecue in their reviews.
Despite the forces which attempt to stifle Black Southern cooks — the best of whom are known as Pitmasters — many are rising up to preserve their tradition. Barbecue was born hundreds of years ago to keep individuals’ African roots alive through cooking, and this goal holds strong even today.
Oftentimes, when we think back on our childhood or important cultural events in our past, we think of the food which accompanied us. When we’re sick, most of us desire the comforting food of the home, and it is high praise to say that a dish tastes “just like Mom used to make.” In other words, food reminds us of where we came from. Our brains link taste and memory closely. So much so, in fact, that many people experience a loss of smell when their memory is damaged. It makes sense that we have evolved to process memory in this way: We would do well to remember the foods which made us sick. Yet our brains do not solely hold onto negative memories surrounding food — we hold onto the positive feelings which it invokes, as well.
This is one of the reasons why food reminds us so much of home, and why “comfort foods” exist; our memory of the food is stored in conjunction with the love which we received while eating it as kids. You may have heard some iteration of the joking claim that “the last place you’ll assimilate is in the kitchen,” — and it makes perfect sense! If our brains are biologically wired to store strong memories about food, then eating one’s native dishes can provide solace even in a foreign setting. With this in mind, it is no wonder that many enslaved Africans sought to use as many of their traditional cooking techniques as possible when cooking in their new environment; by preparing their meals similarly to how one might back home, the food comes to symbolize personal independence even in the face of cruel oppression.
Barbecue is so powerful and popular today exactly because of this hope which it gave to enslaved Africans. After emancipation, many newly freed Africans celebrated with barbecue, thus solidifying it as a “freedom food.” Today, the celebratory nature of barbecue still exists in many Black communities, making it a quintessential part of most Juneteenth events.
Pitmasters today are using barbecue to remember where they came from and to combat the whitewashing of traditionally Black cooking. The Jones sisters of Jones Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Kansas, get down to the core of what barbecue is truly about when they state that understanding barbecue is “something you could do to know how to survive.” Enslaved Africans began barbecuing in order to survive both physically and spiritually, as the food fed their bodies and nourished their souls with memories of home. This history cannot be lost as it is an intrinsic part of what barbecue represents.
Michael Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene, is one of many Black American Pitmasters working to preserve barbecue’s roots. He traces the evolution of African food throughout history in an effort to convey some of the complex beginnings of the food we are now familiar with. Thanks to the work of activists and historians like Twitty, Americans are slowly beginning to recognize the monumental influence of African cooks on American cuisine. Though Black chefs are still a long way away from receiving their due credit, we are seeing some improvements on a large scale. In 2019, for example, chef Mariya Russell became the first Black woman to receive a Michelin Star; additionally, the Barbecue Hall of Fame also posthumously inducted John Bishop and Christopher Stubbfield in 2019 in recognition of their contributions to barbecue. These are small but promising steps towards a more universal appreciation of Black cooking. One way we can help is by eating at Black-owned restaurants; to find some in your area, I recommend the app EatOakra, which can point you towards a plethora of Black-owned restaurants near you. So go out! Try some barbecue, enjoy it and appreciate the deep history entrenched in every bite.
Amelia Clute is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].