Delight Forged Through Suffering
The History of West Tennessee Barbecue
Barbecue is as American as apple pie. A staple in our home state, restaurants for barbecue have been cropping up everywhere since the “barbecue gold rush” of the early 1900’s. The history behind this simple pleasure is equally as American: millions of people from around the world in a brand new civilization, terrified, making something timeless through hundreds of years of fumbling interactions. I spoke with Adrian Miller, the historian and author of Black Smoke known as “The Soul Food Scholar,” about the long trail to the food we all celebrate today.
Christopher Columbus and Slow-Cooked Iguana
Miller is a soft spoken, verbose man who was quick to tell me his expertise on the subject of barbecue is largely based in the Memphis area. “I just so happened to have eaten my way through Memphis,” he explains. However, it soon became clear that his knowledge of barbecue history went as far back as the 1400’s. When I asked that we start at the beginning, he continued with a record of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean.
“Columbus and his crew sailed to the Caribbean to find a platform raised with sticks over a fire burning very slowly,” he states. Apparently, the indigenous people here had laid out on this platform strips of meat and entire lizards to heat very slowly, and walked away as their food cooked through. Allegedly, “the sailors helped themselves to the food… the only thing they didn’t touch were the iguanas.” When the locals returned, they were obviously a bit shocked, but “they were hospitable.” The iguanas left simmering on the grill were the real delicacy — they were happy to have their favorite left to eat. This is the first recorded instance of barbecued cuisine, now a legend. It is also said that this is where the word “barbecue” originates, as the Spanish sailors referred to the smoked meats as “barbacoa.”
The First Pit
In a time before refrigeration, slow cooking and smoking meat was the best way to preserve it. Back in our part of America, natives had a different, but similar system of barbecue, and the earliest known instance of “the pit.” This old school barbecue involved digging a pit in the ground, and filling it with wood for a fire. Over this, large rocks would be laid, which allowed them to keep food warm and cook it slowly without worrying about burning or drying. Miller marvels, “This was genius because the rocks would retain heat… you can have something stay hot/warm for a long time.” Natives would cut strips of meat to be placed on the rocks. “Europeans see this type of cooking and integrated their own traditions, and slaves adopted that,” he explains.
Old School Barbecue and Slavery
The beginning of the American barbecue we celebrate today is absolutely entwined with early American slavery. This began with enslaved Native Americans, but as “Native American slavery did not last… enslaved Africans became barbecue’s primary cooks.” Once the traditions of all three cultures had integrated, a barbeque pit looked more like what we know today: a pit would be dug, filled with burning coals, and entire animals would be cooked on top. They used a technique of cutting called “butterflying,” which meant making a cut down the middle of the animal to spread the meat flat. Slaves would “stick rods through the sides of them,” which would keep the meat slightly above the flame and allow for easy flipping. Someone other than the primary cook would “apply vinegar to keep it from drying.” This is the first known instance of vinegar sauce in barbecue cuisine, which has been adopted broadly — especially in North Carolina.
In my own reading, I found that there is some debate among enthusiasts regarding the type of meat that makes real barbecue. Some claim that cow and pig are both traditional, while other “purists” state that meat should only be pig. I brought this point to Miller for clarification. “Anything could show up on the pit,” he reveals. “Pig, sheep, cow, possum, rabbit, anything they could find.” Obviously a cow is a bit too large to butterfly and put on a spit, so cooks would quarter the cows first. From there, the process was exactly the same.
In the 1700s, barbecue started as an “obscure thing.” Over time, however, it became “one of the go to social entertainment events in the Antebellum South… Made possible by slave labor.” Wealthy host committees would invite thousands to eat for free on their property, with their slaves preparing all of the food. There are reports from the 1800s of fifty thousand or more people turning up for a giant barbecue party. “I don’t know if that’s possible,” Miller admits, “but these were huge crowds. They didn’t have Google Satellite, so who knows.”
Emancipation and Restaurants
After the emancipation of slaves in the 19th century, these massive events continued — although now the cooks had to be paid, and guests had to pay to cover those labor costs. Around this time, restaurants in general began to crop up in America. I had previously spoken with another historian, adjunct professor Douglas Cupples of Christian Brothers University, who told me that barbecue really started to pick up in Memphis when laws came into place prohibiting the sale of alcohol in a business without food. Because barbecue was a popular and simple food to cook, many began offering it to get around the restriction. When I brought this up to Miller, he added, “it’s probably the white joints that have the alcohol connection… you start to see more whites in barbecue at the turn of the 20th century.” This is also when cornbread emerged as the essential barbecue side dish — because wheat was prone to growing fungus in the warm, humid climate, corn was the clear choice for a high-yield crop.
The popularity of private barbecue events and the rise of public eateries during this time meant more people generally got involved cooking it. Miller described a “gold rush in barbecue restaurants” happening in the 1900s. Tons of people were opening their own restaurants. Like most rushes into an industry, however, not everyone made the cut. “By the 1920s, a lot of those are closing,” Miller muses. “Barbecue is a skill, you’ve got to know what you’re doing.” A lot of these closings were due to people who had never cooked barbecue themselves trying to make an easy buck. “If someone did not have an African American in the kitchen, quality was all over the place,” Miller states.
This led to a business practice that in some form has remained for the past hundred years. Millers tells me that, “a number of restaurants would actually advertise having a black man in the kitchen.” I can’t help but think of the recent season of Southpark in which Randy Marsh hires Steve Black at Tegridy Farms, immediately plastering images of them arm in arm across billboards to claim the title of “black-owned business.” This trend in business practice is, evidently, as old as the emancipation of African-American slaves. Miller continued that this practice “communicated to [customers] that they were getting legit barbecue.” Since restaurants with black cooks were seen as more credible, the next several decades saw a “resurgence of black dominated barbecue.”
Today, barbecue is beloved among most Americans as a symbol of the frontier and a staple of southern culture. Every Independence Day, we gather around our grills and celebrate breaking away from the monarchy of the United Kingdom to become our own nation. The original McDonalds was a barbecue restaurant in California. People from around the world travel to the southeast to try our famous smoked meat, prepared by people who have prepared it their entire lives. Miller and I both marveled at the incredibly human notion of joy borne from pain. “This beautiful thing has this horrific past,” he reflects. Through sheer determination in dire circumstances, the interaction of vastly different cultures in an uncertain world, and the arduous process of growth, we have together designed a distinctive simple pleasure. What could be more American?