Honoring Barbeque's Black Heritage
The roots, rise, and growth of American barbeque culture.
"Black people invented barbeque, right?" That's a question I often hear, especially after someone finds out that I wrote a book on African American barbeque culture. The short answer is "No." We can thank Native Americans for laying barbeque's foundation with the multiple ways they traditionally smoked meat. Just because African Americans aren't barbeque's originators doesn't negate their important role in shaping barbeque into the myriad forms that exist today. Quite simply, for much of our nation's history, Black cooks were considered the best at making authentic and delicious barbecue.
This happened because Southern barbeque, as a social event, was a Black experience from start to finish due to its labor intensive and challenging logistics. Someone was needed to clear an outdoor area of debris; chop and burn hardwood into coals; dig a trench and fill that trench with the burning coals; butcher, dress, cook, and sauce whole animal carcasses; maintain a separate fire to replenish the coals; and prepare the accompanying side dishes, desserts, and beverages. Numerous people then served that gargantuan amount of food to the waiting and salivating guests.
The racial dynamics of the antebellum South meant that when a staggering amount of uncompensated work needed to be done, enslaved African Americans were forced to do it. Even after the meal, enslaved African Americans also entertained the assembled white hosts and guests by performing cakewalks, playing the banjo, or singing plantation melodies and spirituals. Usually, only after all that was done, could the enslaved enjoy the barbeque themselves. This scene played out thousands of times in the American South, wedding Blackness and barbeque in the public imagination.
African American barbequers emerged from Emancipation with a highly specialized and marketable skill. In the latter 1800s, more and more people outside of the South hungered for a taste of Southern barbeque. African American barbequers were recruited and put on boats, stagecoaches, and trains to far-flung places to execute a Southern barbeque. These freelance barbequers frequently made a cameo appearance, but sometimes they stayed in that community to make a new home and eventually kickstart its commercial barbeque scene. These entrepreneurs sold barbeque from their residence's lawn by digging a hole, in urban alleys from a mobile cart or an improvised grill, or from a brick-and-mortar location.
As barbeque historian Robert Moss noted, barbeque made an important and practical transition at the turn of the 20th century. In order to adapt to cramped urban spaces, barbeque cooks switched from cooking whole animals as they did in spacious rural areas to cooking smaller cuts of meat. A remarkable amount of innovation resulted that birthed several regional barbeque styles that we celebrate today. Many whites went into the barbeque business during this era, but African Americans adapted to the changing barbeque environment and maintained their status as a vital part of America's barbecue traditions.
Sadly, we know little about many of these African American barbequers because white media either ignored them completely or diminished their humanity by refusing to report their full names. Fortunately, some clearly defined figures emerge from barbeque's hazy past. We know how influential barbeque entrepreneurs Matt Garner, Harry S. Green, and Henry Perry respectively meant to Houston, Texas, Owensboro, Kentucky, and Kansas City, Missouri. We see their culinary influence in Black-owned barbeque restaurants that carry on culinary tradition by specializing in entrées like pork spareribs, chicken, and hot links; soulful side dishes like greens and macaroni and cheese; banana pudding, peach cobbler or pound cake for dessert, and a red drink to wash it all down. Now, that's a legacy that I love tasting over and over again.