I am generally suspicious when anyone claims that the essence of a group of people is contained within one cultural icon. Even after a great deal of clumsy simplification, such equations tend to be more neat than accurate.
Still I am guilty of setting up just such a parallel when it comes to barbecue and the United States. I contend that barbecue is a metaphor for American culture. Moreover, this food, when evaluated properly, is so complex as to require no clumsy simplification to establish it as a fitting parallel to American culture as a whole.
But first, some definitions. In American English, the word “barbecue” is a noun, a verb and an adjective. Used as a verb, it’s a cooking technique in which meat, usually beef, pork, lamb or chicken, is cooked slowly over charcoal or hard wood, using more smoke than fire. As a noun it has two meanings. It is meat cooked in this manner, or it is the feast at which this meat is cooked and served.
As an adjective it is used to describe food prepared in this manner, as in the phrase “barbecued ribs.”
Barbecue is not only broad in its grammar, it is broad in its geographic range. There are more than a dozen different barbecue traditions in the United States. These styles are distinguished by the type of meat used as well as the side dishes and sauces that accompany the meat. In the southeastern states – the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi Alabama – barbecue is almost always pork. In Chicago, a barbecue outpost established by African American migrants from Mississippi and Tennessee, the meat of choice is pork.
In Texas, beef is the traditional meat. In Kansas City, both beef and pork are both traditional. In parts of Kentucky, mutton is the staple. In southern Texas, along the Mexican border, Mexican Americans bury cows heads in the ground with smoldering coals. The cooked meat is then served on corn or wheat flour tortillas.
These regions can be broken down into subregions based on whether the sauce served is a sweet, tomato-based sauce (most of urban America), a tangy vinegar sauce (the Carolinas, Georgia and rural Tennessee), a mustard- based sauce (South Carolina and parts of Alabama), or a Worcestershire- style sauce (parts of Kentucky and North Carolina.)
Perhaps even more important than geography in describing the United States is the range of races and peoples that have come to call this country home. No meaningful discussion of American culture can take place without a deep acknowledgement of the fundamentally mulatto nature of the nation. Barbecue reflects the various ethnic strains as accurately as any census data. Some theories hold that American barbecue had its origins in the smoked meat traditions of west Africa. I have never found those theories conclusive.
What is clear is that barbecue and African Americans are inextricably linked. Barbecuing is long, hot dirty work and those white people who could afford to hire someone to cook for them, would generally employ a black man to do this work. In those days before barbecue restaurants were large, ‘respectable’ enterprises, most of them were in the poor, black sections of southern cities. Moreover, barbecue is a quintessential part of the culture in most of the regions to which African Americans migrated from the South.
But separating Afro and Euro American culture, especially in the South, is almost impossible. Until the 1960s, racist laws prohibited the social mixing of the races. But culturally, the mingling took place unabated. There are many white Americans who have been barbecuing for generations using recipes and techniques handed down within their families.
Texas has earned a reputation as one of the centers of barbecue in the United States. There, the influence of Mexican Americans is felt acutely in the food. Texas barbecue is often seasoned with the cumin and chili powder common to Mexican food. Moreover, in southern Texas, the beans that traditionally accompany the barbecue have a distinctly Mexican flavor.
As subsequent waves of immigrants have reached American shores from Asia and the Caribbean, they too have made their mark on the barbecue. Most modern barbecue cooks include recipes for Jamaican style jerk chicken, or they employ once exotic ingredients like soy sauce or teriyaki sauce in the recipes for their sauces and marinades.
And barbecue reflects American culture in a variety of other, less obvious ways. Americans pride themselves on having tamed the wild expanse of this nation and bent it to the national will. America celebrates rugged individuals like cowboys and trailblazers. These days, many Americans live in cities, far away from any wilderness, but barbecue allows these urbanites to approximate something of the old outdoor way of cooking. The fire must be tamed like in the old days. Large cuts of meat cooked – slabs of ribs, briskets of beef, pork shoulders – are generally the cuts of choice, not unlike the large cuts that would have been cooked in those long gone days with barbecue was prepared in celebration of a successful hunt.
Barbecue has its roots in the simplest of preparation techniques.
Neither pot nor pan is required. Just meat and fire. But the cooking style has evolved to be something far more complicated. Maintaining a steady temperature for the hours it takes to bring a large cut of meat to tenderness is skilled work.
It is typically American in that way. The skilled barbecue chef doesn’t employ all of the precise measurements and exotic ingredients that define European haute cuisine. In that way, barbecue maintains its connection to its folk roots. Indeed, Americans often make fun of the fussy precision of European recipes. But, viewed properly the cooking of the simple folk isn’t so simple.
Lolis Eric Elie is a journalist at The Times-Picayune