The Soul Food Scholar on BBQ History
"We're not fully free yet"
Earlier this summer, I spoke to Adrian Miller, a food writer, James Beard Award winner, certified barbecue judge, and author of Black Smoke: African-Americans and the United States of Barbecue.
I intended to share our conversation around July 4th but then SCOTUS overturned Roe v. Wade. I’m pleased to share Adrian’s wisdom now! He dished on the whitewashed history of barbecue, the Native origins of the tradition, and the “barbecue white dudes” who’ve recently coopted it. The McRib also makes an appearance.
A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can access audio of the full conversation here. To sign up for free and paid content, click below:
Ben: Adrian, thank you so much for being here.
Adrian: Oh, good to be with you.
Ben: I’m excited to dig into the rub on barbecue (sorry). Could you bring us back to the origins of the word “barbecue”?
Adrian: So in the 1490s, that's when we get the first reporting of barbecue.
Columbus and his crew arrive in the Caribbean, they're on an island and they see a wooden platform of raised sticks with iguanas, fish, and other kinds of food over a slow fire. Now, the cooks were nowhere around because this method of cooking was very slow smoking. Obviously, they started the fire, set things up, and then went on to do whatever they wanted to do.
Columbus and crew helped themselves to this feast.
Adrian: Yeah. That was a signal of things to come.
But that wooden frame is what gets us on the road to the word “barbecue.” Whatever the Indigenous word was for the wooden frame of sticks, the Spanish word became barbacoa. That was their approximation of it. And then “barbecue” is an approximation of barbacoa.
So I believe that barbecue is Native American in origin. And then later Europeans and Africans put their influence on it and created something new.
Ben: You have a quote in your book, “When I see the way that Native American barbecue cooks were written out of the barbecue story, I see a playbook for what happened to African American barbecue and its cooks a century later.” What do you mean by that?
Adrian: Well, the Europeans who are doing this type of cooking start to denigrate the way that Native Americans cooked and say it was “savage”'; it was “barbaric.” They were saying even though we're cooking “the Indian way,” we're not really cooking the same way as them.
So by the time we get to the 1800s, barbecue was thought of less as a Native tradition than as something created by Virginians who adopted the practice.
In Virginia, usually, wealthy people would get together, maybe 50-100 people, and they would just eat one pig and they'd shoot guns, play games, drink liquor, all that kind of stuff. These gatherings were tied to civic culture. So some of the largest Independence Day celebrations, or even just any civic occasion, like the completion of a railroad—
Ben: Or maybe a gender reveal.
Adrian: Yeah, would all call for a barbecue. So barbecue is originally a Native style of cooking, then Virginians called it their own, and then barbecue spreads from Virginia to other parts of the US.
Now, one thing that's not always obvious and not expressly stated is that barbecue moves from Virginia to other places along with slavery. This happens because old-school barbecue was labor-intensive.
So here's old school barbecue: find a clearing, dig a trench a couple of feet deep, a few feet wide; chop down enough wood and put it in those trenches; set it afire so that it burns down to hardwood coals. And then you get your animals that you're gonna cook, butcher them, process them. Somebody else would maintain a separate fire to replenish coals and then somebody else's job was to occasionally swab the meat with the vinegar and red pepper solution to flavor it. And then somebody else was cooking the side dishes and somebody else was practicing the music. And once all this food was done, you had people serve it.
That work fell upon primarily enslaved Africans and later enslaved African Americans. Why? Because the racial dynamic in our country is if you wanted somebody to do a lot of work and you didn't want to pay them (and this is happening in the American South), you made enslaved people do it. So by the time we get to the turn of the 19th century, Blackness and barbecue are wedded.
Ben: Tell us a bit about how barbecue becomes an opportunity for political resistance.
Adrian: In addition to being times to congregate, barbecues offered a time to plan rebellions. We find that Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser—the leaders of some of the biggest slave rebellions that happen in Virginia in the 1700s and 1800s—hatched these plots during barbecues. It got to the point that some newspapers started writing editorials like, Hey, y'all, shouldn't let Black people barbecue.
And even after emancipation, barbecues were a way to gather people, to mobilize them for political purposes. A lot of people started hosting barbecues in order to rally people of color to vote. Even whites started hosting barbecues for African Americans, as a way to try to woo them and get their vote.
Ben: To be fair, giving out free barbecue and booze would be a great way to win my vote for just about anything.
Moving forward, after the Civil War, how does barbecue become associated with Black entrepreneurialism, and when do white barbecue chefs try and enter the scene?
Adrian: Because African Americans did a disproportionate amount of cooking barbecue, they emerged from the war with a very marketable and lucrative skill. You find stories of African Americans put on stage coaches, boats, and trains to go to all parts of the country where anybody had a taste for Southern barbecue.
And then towards the 1890s, you find more white men starting to get into barbecue. Obviously, they either got trained by African Americans or observed it and learned on their own through trial and error. But even then most of the white men who are celebrated for barbecue in the 1890s and early 1900s relied on an all-Black workforce.
This leads to a barbecue boom. In the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, you see a ton of barbecue restaurants open, and you have a lot of people in that space. In fact, I don't know if you know this, but McDonald's started out as a barbecue place in California in the 50s.
Ben: So the McRib dates back to the 1950s?
Adrian: Yeah (kind of). So there’s a period when African Americans don't dominate the barbecue scene as much, but then over time, they reassert their dominance in the area. It wasn't that most of the barbecue restaurants were owned and operated by African Americans. It's just that the reputation was if you're going to get the best stuff, you go to a Black joint. Even during segregation, you find white people going to the Black part of town to get barbecue.
Ben: You mention in Black Smoke how this re-solidified link between Blackness and barbecue maintains up to the 1980s. I also love your discussion of “the four types of white guys food platforms fell for.” Please go HAM (sorry) describing how those dynamics are connected.
Adrian: So the story of African American barbecue doesn't fall into some of the traditional diversity critiques that we've heard about other media, because usually, the critique is y'all have never talked about Black influences. Before the 1990s, it was weird to have a national barbecue story or even some regional stories and not mention an African American.
This all changes in the 1990s and my theory is it's tied to the rise of “foodies” (I’m guilty of being one myself). At the very time that people were looking for experts and more information about this beloved cuisine, the media at the time was pointing them in the direction of four types of white dudes.
I call them archetypal barbecue white dudes. So you've got the competition guy, the Bubba type (working class, wearing overalls), the hipster (with interesting facial hair and tattoos), and then you got the fine-dining chefs.
So that's what led me to write Black Smoke. I'm like, this is jacked up. If you're gonna talk about barbecue in the United States, you got to include African Americans.
Ben: You're suggesting that the other book I read, Swedish Smoke, the Story of Scandinavian Barbecuers, is misinterpreting the historical record.
Adrian: Yes, it is. Somebody needs to correct that!
Ben: On a concluding note, thinking about the history of barbecue, is there something you'd remind readers and listeners as they eat this cuisine?
Adrian: Well, one thing that's really interesting about 4th of July history is that for a while in the American South, it was really only African Americans who celebrated it.
Southern whites were so wounded after the Civil War that they didn't bother to have civic celebrations around Independence Day. So it was African Americans who kept that banner going for a couple of decades, and then by the time you get to the 1900s, Southern whites started getting back into these celebrations.
So just remember, July 4th is a holiday for everyone, but for African Americans, it's been complicated because we're not fully free yet. Maybe one day we will be, but we’re still striving to make a more perfect union, sauced with the right kind of barbecue.
Ben: Thank you so much, Adrian.
Adrian: Thank you, Ben. I just love finding these stories and reviving them and sharing them with others.