How Black People Are Rooted in the Story of American Barbecue
Adrian Miller's latest book dives into the history of African Americans and barbecueAdrian Miller
July 19, 2021
With the arrival of the summer comes the return of barbecue season. While the proper barbecue technique is debatable depending on which region you find yourself in, when discussing the origins of barbecue, it is imperative to recognize the contributions that Black Americans have had to the cuisine.
In his most recent book, Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, James Beard Award-winning author Adrian Miller chronicles how Black barbecuers, pitmasters, and restaurateurs have helped develop this cornerstone of American cookery. In chapter four entitled, “The Ascendancy of the African American Barbecue Specialist," Miller discusses how Black people used barbecue to find a foothold in the South.
During the nineteenth century, these anonymous cooks saw barbecue transition from being reasonably sized private events that punctuated plantation life to a something engrained in multiple aspects of southern society. Major life events such as a child’s birth, a graduation, a wedding, or a funeral could involve barbecue. White tourists on fishing and hunting trips in the South often hired an African American cook to join, and barbecue could be on the menu depending on what was caught. Private barbecue clubs formed, and southern college fraternities and sororities started barbecue traditions that survive to this day. Any civic occasion—completing a public works project or celebrating a holiday—could lead to what was typically called a “monster barbecue” because of its huge size. In the vast majority of these situations, from the mundane to the monstrous, African Americans barbecuers were hired.
The mainstream barbecue of the nineteenth century, heavily influenced by Virginia barbecue, had these core elements: a certain way of cooking, Black cooks, Black servants, and Black entertainment. This pattern still held true in the latter half of the nineteenth century. What differed was the rise of a class of independent Black barbecue experts who could make barbecue on their own terms and get decently compensated for it. In this chapter, we’ll look at how Black barbecuers were conferred expertise, what a typical job would be for them, and the challenges they faced in practicing their trade.
In the nineteenth century, when most people thought of “authentic” barbecue, they thought about southern barbecue. In time, local barbecue traditions popped up inside and outside of the American South. A communal pride emerged as people living in certain places were happy to cheerlead for the way barbecue was made in their area. Despite the attempts to create and celebrate these differences, the type of meat and the way it was barbecued was remarkably consistent across the South. Operationally, there was little difference, aesthetically and logistically, between, say, a “Virginia barbecue” and a “Kentucky barbecue.” They all used some variation of the trench method that was developed in Virginia in the 1700s. The more discernible regional differences in terms of preferred meats, side dishes, desserts, and beverages appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century.
Regional barbecue cooks could showcase their skills with a particular meat, but usually a wide variety of meats were cooked for barbecue events. For example, food media has confined Kentucky’s diverse barbecue traditions to one city and one type of meat—mutton served in Owensboro. In reality, the city boasted many different barbecue traditions during much of the 1800s. In 1868, the Cincinnati Daily Gazette reported on a barbecue held in Falmouth, Kentucky. The menu featured “shoulders of mutton, hams and ribs of pork and beef.” The article also described how a “chief colored cook, in his uniform of white apron and paper cap, passed briskly around with his badge of office, a large butcher knife in hand, attending to the roasting, and giving directions to his help.” In 1896, the Louisville Journal-Courier indicated that in Kentucky, “the fine beeves, mutton, and pork all serve to make this form of open-air entertainment a most attractive one.” Keeping with the pattern of showing regional distinction, numerous articles on Kentucky barbecue described the local dish of “burgoo,” a thick meat (usually lamb and chicken) and vegetable stew, and how to make it.
Newly freed Blacks marketed their barbecue skills to an enthusiastic and hungry public. Well into the twentieth century, African Americans enjoyed a competitive advantage in barbecue because of a widespread belief among southern whites that Black people made the best barbecue. Slavery’s shadow loomed large in such thinking. The bona fides of a Black barbecue cook were inextricably linked to bondage. In 1909, nearly six decades after Emancipation, President William Howard Taft traveled to Augusta, Georgia, and devoured some barbecue prepared by a man named John Hays. A local newspaper reported, “The old darkey, John Hays, made the ‘cue’ just exactly the same as he has been doing every month ‘since long befo’ de war.’” Black barbecuers of that era were similarly described in media.
Many barbecuers earned their reputation based on patron testimonials and word-of-mouth advertising. Newspapers gave barbecuers another platform to tout their skills. Some left it to reporters to tell of their culinary exploits, but such articles rarely gave details about the cooks. There was usually a fuller description of what brought about the occasion, the barbecue’s program, the number of attendees, and generally what food and drink was served. Even with the richest descriptions, the Black cooks were just a part of the scene’s background.
In 1843 the Reverend Hamilton W. Pierson, a well-accomplished itinerant Presbyterian minister, wrote a remarkably complete description of a Kentucky barbecue in the 1880s called In the Brush. He commented on the Black barbecuers’ “excitable natures . . . being [that] they were supremely happy” and how they “cheerfully plied their task, . . . frequently [singing] those strange, wild African songs that they are accustomed to improvise while at work and upon all kinds of occasions, and as they echoed among the forest-trees and floated out upon the night- air, the soft sweet melody was most enchanting.” Pierson’s readers would have been familiar with the “happy slave or worker” trope. After all, how can servitude or low status in a racial caste system be all that bad if Black folks are happy and singing while doing the work?
Pierson’s readers outside of the South were probably unfamiliar with his references to the African Americans singing work songs. Given how labor intensive it is to make southern barbecue, I suspect that they sang to coordinate their activity and make the job easier. Folklorist and music scholars note that work songs have a deep history in African American life that connects back to Africa. The context for many of the work songs that have been written down or recorded tends to be agricultural work or prison labor. I have yet to find a work song that explicitly refers to barbecue, and I can only wonder what Pierson experienced. Given the time period, he might have heard an early version of the blues.
From BLACK SMOKE: AFRICAN AMERICANS AND THE UNITED STATES OF BARBECUE by Adrian Miller. A Ferris & Ferris Book. Copyright © 2021 by Adrian Miller. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.
Adrian Miller is a food writer, James Beard Award winner, attorney, and certified barbecue judge who lives in Denver, Colorado. Adrian is featured in the Netflix docuseries, High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.