Few foods inspire more finger licking and feverish debate than the beauty that is barbecue. In the annals of iconic American foods, barbecue is unbeatable. We break out our best attempts for the long weekends that bookend the summer. We worship preeminent pitmasters like wood smoke-wielding gods of meat. Behind the hallowed whole hogs and rib racks is a history as rich as a slick of sauce, so to introduce today's new BBQ-centric black & white Vintage Edition, we sought out someone who knows way more about this subject than we do: "The Soul Food Scholar" Adrian Miller.
Below, Miller reflects on FSA photographer Russell Lee's Man slicing barbecue, and illuminates the integral role of Black Americans in barbecue culture. Read on! — Team 20x200
Russell Lee's Man slicing barbecue at the Gonzales County Fair is a refreshing and important reminder of how central African Americans are to the barbecue story in the United States. I'm pleased that 20x200 includes Lee's photograph in its Vintage Editions series, and the timing couldn't be better. Current media representations of U.S. barbecue culture have pushed African Americans to the sidelines, which is a stark contrast to how barbecue cooks were previously depicted for 150 years.
Barbecue, as we understand it today, is a traditional Native American cooking and preservation technique that eventually fused with European and West African culinary influences and ingredients. Before 1800, almost all references to barbecue acknowledged that this type of food owed a debt to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It wasn't unusual for barbecue to be called "cooking in the Indian manner." By 1850, circumstances had changed to where enslaved African Americans were the quintessential barbecuers in the American South. How did this happen?
Before butchers sold smaller cuts of meat to customers, barbecue was labor-intensive, whole animal cooking that demanded huge crowds to consume the feast. Someone had to dig a pit, chop down trees for wood to fuel the fire, kill and process the animals, cook the animals for several hours, and then serve the finished product. Slaveholders who embraced barbecue believed that such arduous work was only appropriate for enslaved African Americans. After Emancipation, skilled African American barbecuers were in high demand to continue this culinary tradition. More white men gained expertise in making barbecue, but even so, many believed that the best and most "authentic" southern barbecue was that made by African Americans. This belief persisted well into the twentieth century.
Today, it's trendy to describe making barbecue as a "craft," and most of the celebrated barbecue craftspeople, particularly in Texas, are white. Man slicing barbecue thankfully challenges that narrative. Gonzales is located in central Texas, in the heart of cattle country. Under contemporary notions of what true barbecue is, one would expect the unnamed subject to be slicing beef brisket. Yet, Man slicing barbecue unapologetically portrays a black barbecue aesthetic. The unnamed subject is an African American man who is focused on breaking down an expertly smoked whole hog into manageable portions, most visibly the spareribs. It's only a matter of time before the subject bathes the barbecue with some sacred concoction contained in one of those pots. Yes, believe it or not, there is more than one way to make Texas barbecue, and as Lee's 1939 photograph shows, sauced, pork barbecue is "old school," even in the Lone Star State.
I look forward to featuring this print in Black Smoke, my forthcoming book on the history of African American barbecue culture!
Yours in smoke and sauce,
Read more from Adrian Miller on the blog!
About Our Guest Author
Adrian Miller, "The Soul Food Scholar," is an attorney, certified barbecue judge, politico and food writer who lives in Denver, Colorado. His first book, Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Outstanding Scholarship and Reference. His second book, The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Cooked for Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas was a finalist for the 2018 NAACP Image Award for Best Non-Fiction Literary Work. Miller is currently writing a book on the history of African American barbecue culture titled Black Smoke.