BBQ on the Move
"Follow the people."
Lolis Eric Elie, author of Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, one of the best barbecue books ever written, gave me that advice when I first started writing about food. It aptly applies to how African Americans are connected to Southern barbecue. From slavery's spread in the antebellum period to the Great Migration of the 20th century, enslaved and free African American cooks introduced and popularized Southern barbecue in various places outside of the American South. In essence, African Americans have long been Southern barbecue's most effective ambassadors.
I purposefully use the term "Southern barbecue" here because "barbecue" has been so sloppily applied to many different cooking methods that it now has multiple meanings. African Americans didn't invent Southern barbecue. Native Americans have that honor. Yet, British colonists in Virginia built upon indigenous methods for smoking meat to create the Southern barbecue that we recognize today. At first, enslaved Native Americans, and later, enslaved Africans and African Americans, further developed the cuisine.
From the 16th to 19th centuries, Southern barbecue was remarkably consistent in its preparation. Whole animals (usually a cow, pig or sheep) were cooked over a trench dug in the ground that was filled with burning hardwood coals. The animals were pierced with long wooden or metal poles so that they could be periodically flipped as they cooked. The carcasses were also occasionally swabbed with a vinegar-based sauce seasoned with red pepper and perhaps a few other spices. Barbecuing was labor-intensive, and enslaved African Americans were forced to prepare it.
From spring to fall, Southern barbecue was a popular choice for any large gathering, public or private: a wedding, a family reunion, the completion of a public works project, a political rally or the Fourth of July. Why? Because it's delicious, and its preparation was scalable. As long as the event's host found a large-enough space and had the resources to procure food and supplies and to get enough labor, a large-scale barbecue could happen anywhere. It was a moveable feast that fed not just thousands of people, but potentially, tens of thousands of people.
The first example of barbecue on the move happened during the antebellum period. Slaveholding Virginians took Southern barbecue, as a food and a social event, with them when they relocated to other parts of the expanding United States territory, notably western Tennessee, Kentucky and eastern Texas. Barbecue cuisine was transplanted in these areas because Virginian slaveholders brought enslaved African Americans with them. Thus, as chattel slavery spread, Southern barbecue did as well.
Barbecue's second move was more ephemeral. After Emancipation, African American barbecue specialists emerged with a highly coveted skill and a collective reputation for making the best Southern barbecue. These experts made culinary cameos all over the country, often as a result of event planners recruiting them to add a special something to an occasion. Nineteenth-century newspapers are filled with articles about a "negro" or "colored" barbecue expert arriving to a community a few days before an event to prepare a massive barbecue. Readers often got daily progress reports on the expert's work. In such situations, the locals were probably getting their first taste of Southern barbecue, and it was presented as a fleeting experience. Once the barbecue experts' jobs were done, they headed home, and that authentic barbecue went with them.
Southern barbecue became a more permanent feature of food scenes around the country, thanks to the Great Migration. From the 1910s to the 1970s, millions of African Americans left the racially oppressive South to seek a better way of life. They settled in cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York and St. Louis. They brought Southern barbecue with them, often sparking Black entrepreneurship. Some sold Southern barbecue by digging a traditional pit in their lawn, others sold it from makeshift operations in urban alleys and streets, while others opened restaurants. In all of these instances, many whites were getting their first taste of Southern barbecue from Black cooks. An important difference was that, for practical reasons that arose from being in an urban setting, barbecue featured smaller cuts of meat instead of whole animals as was traditional in the rural South.
Southern barbecue also thrived in the private lives of these Black migrants. That was certainly the case when my mother, Johnetta Miller, left Chattanooga, Tennessee, to be closer to an older sister living in Denver, Colorado. A brief stint in the U.S. Air Force brought my father, Hyman Miller Sr., to Denver from Helena, Arkansas. They met at a Black church (the one I still attend) in the 1960s, and they made Denver their permanent home. Barbecue was a seasonal dish, eaten on three main occasions in our home: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Our typical barbecue holiday spread was pork spareribs, chicken, hot links (a type of sausage), bratwurst, hamburgers and hot dogs (only a few), baked beans, corn on the cob, coleslaw, potato salad, macaroni salad and pop, with lemon icebox pie and ripe watermelon for dessert.
As my family savored our fantastic Southern barbecue with the majestic Rocky Mountains in view, we reinforced our culinary and cultural ties to the American South. We were physically distanced from the region, but our love for one of its iconic foods never budged.
Adrian Miller is a James Beard Award-winning author who lives in Denver, Colorado. His books include Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas, and the forthcoming Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, which will be published in April 2021. Follow Miller on Instagram @soulfoodscholar.