In his latest book, “Black smoke: African Americans and the United States of barbecue“Writes food scholar and James Beard winner Adrian Miller,” Black barbecues are often found at the intersection of food, race and the absurd. “
“The barbecue was one of the places where people were ignorant of the color line in terms of restaurants, and you would often find white people going to Black’s neighborhood to have a barbecue,” says Miller.
From the surprising and often overlooked beginnings of American barbecue, Miller chronicles the evolution and entrepreneurial spirit of black barbecue while fanning the embers of its living legacy. Joins Good Food to discuss barbecue origins, community and legacy.
KCRW: The word “barbecue” has its roots in West Africa. Can you explain how the history of barbecue begins with the indigenous peoples of America and the main cooking techniques that were used?
Adrian miller: “The reason I start with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, mainly mainland North America, is that the Caribbean origin story never really enchanted me when it came to southern barbecue. Because that story is that Europeans show up in the Caribbean, they see the indigenous people cook in a way that they are not familiar with, and then the Europeans bring it to the mainland of North America.
The way southern barbecue comes about is very different. … So I contend that it was actually a fusion of Native American smoking techniques. And there were several ways that Native Americans cooked. In some ways, they had sticks pointing towards the fire, and there would be morsels of meat angled towards the fire for cooking. It was cooked with saliva, with which Europeans would be familiar. There was also something called an earth oven. It was like a vertical hole with a fuel source at the bottom and then layers of meat and vegetation. And then you bury it and come back some time later and eat it. There was also the raised platform, which is what people saw in the Caribbean, and then also a very shallow pit, where many times the meat was placed on the coals.
So what I contend is that Europeans saw some of this and then added their own grilling techniques. And that put us on our way to the barbecue. And then when enslaved Africans increased in numbers, they became the leading barbecue cooks and added their own culinary signature to what would become barbecue. “
Talk a bit more about that transition.
“What surprised me when researching this book is that Native Americans were the first barbecue cooks, actually, and that they too were enslaved. So the earliest forms of barbecue were likely cooked by enslaved Native Americans and hired white servants before the transition to African slavery. So when Africans are enslaved and asked to cook this way, they begin to fuse their own type of meat cooking and West African smoking traditions with European grilling techniques and what the natives were doing. Americans, and it becomes unique.
Many people in colonial America called barbecue “Indian-style cooking.” And what you find is that there are some African-American steakhouses well into the 20th century that still described this kind of old-school barbecue as ‘cooking the Indian way’. And that was digging a trench a few feet wide, a few feet deep, filling it with hardwood coals that were burned, and then taking whole animal carcasses, which could be a pig, a sheep, if they get a cow, putting butterflies on them and nailing posts to the sides, and then someone turned those carcasses regularly to cook them without burning them, and then added sauce throughout the whole process. And that’s what southern barbecue was originally like. “
How did he figure in prewar social life?
“In the early years, especially in Virginia, I agree with some scholars that Virginia was really the birthplace of southern barbecue, they were very small gatherings, generally wealthy people gathered. And then the other side of the barbecue was the noisy parties where usually the guys hung out with shotguns, played, played games, told lies, all that sort of thing. And then over time, as barbecue becomes more popular, politicians and preachers take over and oversize it.
So when we get to the 1820s and 30s, we are seeing reports of barbecues with 10, 20, 50,000 people. And I think the barbecue was perfect for these events because it was so scalable, as long as you had enough manpower. And usually that’s why they turned to enslaved people, because they could force them to do this job. As long as you had enough work, enough animals and enough space, you could have a barbecue. “
You say barbecue, like church, is about building community. What is the relevance of one to the other, and in particular, the phrase “theological barbecue”?
“In the period of the religious awakening in America, you had these things called ‘revivals’ or ‘camp gatherings.’ These would be multi-day affairs where they preached all day and then ate on certain breaks. And the barbecue fit that well, because it was scalable and could feed a lot of people. And that was a way to draw a crowd and hopefully get converts to your religion.
But on the plantations, enslaved African Americans also used barbecue to build churches in a very small sense. Generally, enslaved people had weekends off, especially Saturday. And with the slower work schedule, that gave time to the barbecue. There were also reports of secret barbecues, in which enslaved people “ borrowed ” a pig and cooked it out of sight of the slave owner. And many times they were also religious gatherings. And then you get this connection to the church and the barbecue, both in the little private gatherings on the plantation, and in these large-scale public events called ‘field meetings.’
How and when did barbecue move into America’s “mainstream”?
“I contend that it moved into mainstream America in the 20th century, and a lot of this was due to the transition from rural barbecue to urban barbecue. The rural barbecue consisted of cooking whole animals on a trench full of embers of firewood. But when you arrive in an urban setting, that is not always so practical. And so we get the construction of artificial wells. The first wells were generally made of bricks or concrete blocks. And then we start to see, instead of cooking whole animals, people who focus on parts of animals. That’s when you start to see ribs, pork shoulder, sausage, chicken, all of that, grow in popularity, and then it leads to innovation and the various regional styles that we discuss today. “
Can you talk about the aesthetics and evolution of the black barbecue as a business?
“This idea that a barbecue place should be viewed in a certain way speaks to the discrimination that black businessmen have faced from the very beginning of this country. And the main thing is the lack of access to capital. So when black barbecues wanted to start a business … usually they just dug a hole in the ground and did the old trench method. So there were people running in the field. There would be a designated spot, or they would do it from your home lawn.
But when people started looking for physical locations, they never found a good spot on the main commercial thoroughfare. Usually it was in a run-down part of town and usually the building itself was run-down. And due to the lack of access to capital, these entrepreneurs could not really improve the physical plant of their restaurant. So that became a kind of aesthetic norm. And people loved what these entrepreneurs cooked. They just said, ‘Oh, these are the signs of a good place.’ But that was really a reflection that a lot of these entrepreneurs never made enough money to show all those other aspects of their business and beautify it. “
You have an ironic recipe for “disappearing black barbecue.” When did the media coverage shift from the brilliance of Black BBQ to his exclusion?
“I relate it to the 1990s. I think the biggest thing that changed was the emergence of this group that we call ‘foodies.’ We have always had people who saw food as a leisure and a sport, but they tended to be very rich. But the thing about foodies in the late 1980s and then early 1990s is that you have a group of middle-class people who have disposable income and their palate is much more adventurous than theirs. fathers. And they look for authentic experiences.
And just as this group increases, you have a commensurate increase in food means to serve this group. And so the barbecue was gaining popularity around the same time. So foodies wanted to know, ‘Hey, what is barbecue? And where can I get the good stuff? And unfortunately, because the people deciding which stories to tell weren’t diverse, more and more white people were presenting themselves as experts, because people searching for stories were simply asking other white people, ‘Who should we profile? Who should we talk about? ‘”
Who do you want us to know about?
“One guy is Matt Horn. He’s in Oakland. And he’s on his way to opening a brick and mortar place. It’s a bit difficult to do that these days. There … a restaurant is called Vegan mafia, because vegan barbecue is a pretty popular trend right now. I want people to know them. Also, if you haven’t seen ‘Queer Eye,’ the Jones sisters from Kansas City, Kansas, are fantastic people who cook great food. His sauce business has taken off after being on that show. … They have a barbecue vending machine. So 24/7, you can show up and buy sandwiches or whatever. I think it’s brilliant. “