In his latest book, “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States BBQ“, writes Adrian Miller, food specialist and James Beard winner,” Black-led barbecues often lie at the intersection of food, race and nonsense. “
âThe barbecue was one of the places where people kind of ignored the color line in terms of restaurants, and you would often find white people going to the black neighborhood to barbecue,â says Miller.
From the surprising and often overlooked beginnings of American barbecue, Miller chronicles the evolution and entrepreneurial spirit of black barbecue as it fuels the coals of its living heritage. He joins Good Food to discuss the origins, community and legacy of barbecue.
KCRW: The word âbarbecueâ has its roots in West Africa. Can you explain how the history of barbecue began with the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the main cooking techniques that were used?
Adrien miller: âThe reason I start with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, primarily mainland North America, is that the story of Caribbean origins has never really convinced me when it comes to southern barbecue. Because this story is that Europeans show up in the Caribbean, they see indigenous people cooking in a way they don’t know, and then Europeans bring that to the North American continent.
The way the Southern barbecue emerges is so different. … So I contend that in reality it was a fusion of Native American smoking techniques. And there were several ways that Native Americans cooked. In a sense, they had sticks pointed towards the fire, and there would be pieces of meat tilted somehow towards the fire for cooking. There was spit cooking, which the Europeans knew well. There was also what was called an earthen oven. It was like a vertical hole with a fuel source at the bottom, then layers of meat and vegetation. And then you bury it and come back sometime later and eat that. There was also the raised platform, which people saw in the Caribbean, and then also a very shallow pit, where often the meat was just sitting on the hot coals.
And so what I’m arguing is that the Europeans saw part of that and then added their own grilling techniques. And that got us on the barbecue path. And then later, when enslaved Africans increased in numbers, they became the main barbecue cooks and added their own culinary signature to what would become barbecue. “
Talk a little more about this transition.
âWhat surprised me while researching this book was that Native Americans were the first barbecue cooks, really, and they were also enslaved. So the earliest forms of barbecue were probably prepared by enslaved Native Americans and indentured white servants before the transition to African slavery. So when Africans are enslaved and asked to cook that way, they begin to merge their own kind of traditions of cooking and smoking West African meat with European grilling techniques and what the Native Americans used to do, and it becomes that kind of unique thing.
Many people in Colonial American times called barbecue âcooking Indian styleâ. And what you find is that there are African American barbecues up to the 20th century that still describe 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 burnt, and then taking whole animal carcasses – it could be a pig, a sheep, s’ they have a cow, fluttering them up and sticking poles on the side, then someone has turned those carcasses regularly to cook them without burning them, and then added gravy throughout the process. And so that was what the Southern barbecue originally was.
How did he fit into pre-war social life?
âIn the early years, especially in Virginia – I agree with some academics that Virginia was really the birthplace of the Southern barbecue – it was really small gatherings, usually rich people getting together. And then the other side of the barbecue was rowdy evenings where guys usually got together with shotguns, played, played games, told lies, stuff like that. And then over time, as barbecue becomes more popular, politicians and preachers grab it and oversize it.
So by the time we get to the 1820s and 30s, we see reports of barbecues with 10, 20, 50,000 people. And I think the barbecue was perfect for these events because it was very scalable, as long as you had enough manpower. And usually, that’s why they looked to slaves, because they could make them do that work. As long as you had enough manpower, enough animals, and enough space, you could barbecue.
You say that the barbecue, like the church, is used to build a community. What is the relevance of one to the other, and in particular, the expression âtheological barbecue? “
âDuring the period of religious awakening in America, you had these things called ‘revivals’ or ‘camp meetings’. It would be a multi-day business where they preached all day and then ate at certain breaks. And the barbecue fits in well with that because it was scalable and you could feed a lot of people. And so that was a way to attract a crowd and hopefully get converts to your religion.
But on the plantations, enslaved African Americans also used the barbecue to build a church in a very small way. In general, slaves were given weekends off, especially the Sabbath. And with the slowed down work schedule, it left time for a barbecue. There were also reports of secret barbecues, where slaves sort of “borrowed” a pig and cooked it out of sight of the slave holder. And very often, these were also religious gatherings. And so you get that connection with the church and the barbecue, both in the small private gatherings on the plantation, and also in these larger scale public events called âcamp meetingsâ.
How and when did barbecue take root in âmainstreamâ America?
âI contend that he moved to mainstream America in the 20th century, and that is due in large part to the transition from rural barbecue to urban barbecue. The rural barbecue consisted of cooking whole animals in a trench filled with hot coals. But when you arrive in an urban environment, it is not always so practical. And so we get the construction of artificial pits. The first pits were generally made of bricks or cinder blocks. And then we start to see, instead of cooking whole animals, people focusing on animal parts. This is when you start to see ribs, pork shoulder, sausage, chicken, all of that gaining popularity and then it leads to innovation and different regional styles that we let’s talk today.
Can you tell us about the aesthetics and evolution of Black barbecue as a company?
âThis idea that a barbecue place is supposed to have a certain appearance speaks to the discrimination black entrepreneurs have faced from the very beginning of this country. And the main one is the lack of access to capital. So when black barbecues wanted to start a business, they usually dug a hole in the ground and proceeded the old way of trenching. So you had people running places around the country. There would be a designated spot, or they would do it from their lawn on their house.
But when people started looking for brick and mortar locations, they never got a good spot on the main commercial thoroughfare. It was usually in a run down part of town, and usually the building itself was run down. And due to a lack of access to capital, these entrepreneurs could not really improve the physical setup of their restaurant. So it has become a sort of aesthetic standard. And people loved what these entrepreneurs were up to. They would just say, ‘Oh, those are signs of a good place.’ But it was really a reflection of the fact that a lot of these entrepreneurs never had enough money to really show off all these other aspects of their business and make it more beautiful.
You have an ironic recipe for the “disappearing black barbecue”. When did the media coverage shift from the black barbecue shine to its exclusion?
âI relate it to the 1990s. I think the big thing that has changed has been the rise of this group that we call the ‘foodies’. We’ve always had people who saw food as a hobby and a sport, but they tended to be very wealthy. But what happens with foodies in the late 1980s and then early 1990s is you have a bunch of middle class people who have disposable income, and their palate is a lot more adventurous than that. that of their parents. And they are looking for authentic experiences.
And just as this group grows, you have a proportional increase in the food media to respond to this group. And so, barbecue was growing in popularity around the same time. Foodies wanted to know, âHey, what’s a barbecue? And where can I find the good stuff? And unfortunately, because the people who decide which stories to tell were not diverse, more and more white people were presented as experts, because the people who were looking for stories were simply asking other white people, ” Who should we profile? Who should we be talking about? ‘ “
Who do you want us to know?
âOne guy is Matt Horn. He’s in Oakland. And he’s about to open up a place of brick and mortar. It’s a bit difficult to do nowadays. There isâ¦ a restaurant called Vegan Mob, because vegan barbecue is a pretty hot trend right now. I want people to know them. Plus, if you haven’t seen “Queer Eye,” the Jones sisters in Kansas City, Kansas are great people who make great food. Their sauce business took off after appearing on this show. â¦ They have a barbecue machine. So 24/7 you can just show up and have sandwiches or whatever. I just think it’s awesome.