What does BBQ tell us about race?


Southern Barbecue, Horace Bradley, 1887

From Common Place:

Ask a few Americans what they think about barbecue. The guy from Kansas City will tell you about his sauce, the one from South Carolina will disagree. The Texan with hold forth on beef brisket. Someone from Memphis, waving a charred smokey rib, will beg to differ. The Californian will be discussing his patio grill and tri tip. But no one will be indifferent. Soon you will discover what they all have in common: serious passion and strong feelings about the meaning of barbecue. For all Americans, this is manly outdoor cooking—messy food you eat with your hands. Freud understood the urge well. For every civilized meal, eaten inside politely with a knife and fork, cooked by women, served on china, there’s the primal, even savage barbecue. Roasted meat gnawed from the bone is nothing new, nor are these associations. Think of Homer’s warriors roasting whole oxen, or Charlemagne as described by his biographer Einhard, as a serious eater of meat. Americans just happen to have raised this form of cooking to High Art.

Andrew Warnes takes these macho associations one step further, though, arguing that the barbecue, from the initial encounter between Europeans and Native Americans, right down to the present, is really about race, violence, and exploitation. The idea of barbecue, he argues, even when alluring, is tainted by associations with the primitive, exotic other, the cannibal, and the assertion of white superiority.

But isn’t barbecue one of the few foods prepared and enjoyed by all Americans regardless of color? A truly hybrid cuisine which all claim as their own and share equally? Blacks, whites, even Mongolians, stake a rightful claim to it. Warnes could not possibly be further from the mark with his impression of “American culture’s low estimation of pit barbecue”. But perhaps this enthusiasm really does conceal, like a cloying thick sauce, an underlying truth that is vicious and racist.

The evidence presented is unfortunately tough and hard to swallow. The first chapter tries to convince us that putting together the words barbecue and barbarian is not coincidental. Early conquistadors and their chroniclers who first described the crude cooking methods of the Native Americans unwittingly forged an association that would be used to justify the exploitation of natives who slow-cooked not only horrid beasts like iguanas, but even human flesh. Theodor de Bry’s popular images of freakish bald-headed cannibals chomping on arms and legs certainly would seem to suggest a “long tradition of conflating barbecue and cannibalism”.

But does the evidence really hold up? Do a handful of references denote a long-standing tradition of associating barbecue with racial discrimination?

“What does barbecue tell us about race?”, Ken Albala, Common Place