Barbecue

 

"Barbecue is one of the most American of foods, and it's the one most intimately linked to the contours of the nation's history," writes Robert F. Moss in Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. It sounds implausible: how could there be anything distinctively American about cooking meat over an open fire, surely the oldest of culinary technologies? Weren't the cavemen already doing it, and didn't European settlers know how to roast beef and pork before they landed in the New World? And yet, Moss shows, there was something about the way Native Americans barbecued, slow-roasting whole animals on a raised platform of sticks over a bed of coal, that struck European observers as fascinatingly exotic. Some of the first books about the exploration of North America feature woodcuts of barbecues—a 1590 engraving, reproduced in Barbecue, shows Indians in what is now North Carolina barbecuing fish—and the word itself, common to tribes in the Caribbean and along the East Coast, quickly entered the English language.

 

In colonial times, Moss shows, barbecuing was popular in New England: when the British took Quebec from the French in 1759, the inhabitants of Falmouth, Maine celebrated with a barbecue. But after the Revolution, it seems to have died out north of the Mason-Dixon line, becoming a distinctively Southern custom. Spreading from Virginia to the south and west, barbecue evolved from a cooking technique—pigs and cows were slowly roasted over coal pits, and basted with a sauce made of butter, vinegar, salt and pepper—into a folk celebration. In particular, barbecues became political events, where candidates would court voters with a feast while delivering speeches. (In the 1840 presidential election, supporters of William Henry Harrison had a barbecue-related slogan: "Democrats,/They eat rats!/But Whigs/Eat pigs!) And the patriotic Fourth of July barbecue was already popular in the early 19th century—so much so that some genteel observers, including temperance crusaders, protested these populist, liquor-fueled celebrations.

 

Not surprisingly, barbecues in the antebellum South were also fraught with racial politics. It was common for white men to toast liberty at Independence Day barbecues where the pits were staffed by African-American slaves. Slave-owners also used barbecues to reward their slaves and demonstrate their own benevolence: to Frederick Douglass, such feasts were "the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection." At the same time, however, barbecues were one of the few occasions where slaves could meet with neighbors from other plantations. It's no coincidence that the Nat Turner rebellion began at a barbecue.

 

As the country changed, Moss explains, barbecue changed with it. With the rise of the automobile came roadside barbecue stands, which could be considered the earliest fast-food restaurants. In fact, the original McDonald's, in San Bernardino, California, had a "hickory-chip pit" in back, before it converted to an all-hamburger menu. This was a sign of the times: barbecue is a slow, labor-intensive process, unsuited to standardization. Yet new technologies also made barbecuing, of a kind, more popular than ever. In the postwar suburbs, backyard Weber grills made it possible for millions to share in the old rustic ritual—even though hamburgers and hot dogs, served with sweet, tomato-based sauce from Kraft, were eons away from the traditional hogs basted in vinegar or mustard. In this sense, Moss shows, barbecue is a perfect example of the way Americans continue to reinvent themselves and their traditions, creating at least a nominal continuity even as the ways we live, and eat, change beyond recognition.

 


Footnotes:


Forget about "Dancing with the Stars": In Ballroom!: Obsession and Passion Inside the World of Competitive Dance (University Press of Florida), prize-winning dancer Sharon Savoy documents the Blackpool Dance Festival, showing how on-stage artistry and backstage politics fuel the most prestigious ballroom competition in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

Sylvie Weil is the daughter of Andre Weil, the great mathematician, and the niece of Simone Weil, one of the twentieth century's most influential religious thinkers. In At Home with Andre and Simone Weil (Northwestern University Press), she draws on her own recollections and family correspondence to create a domestic portrait of these enigmatic sibling geniuses.

 

 

 

 

 

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