“Barbecue is one of the most American of foods, and it’s theone most intimately linked to the contours of the nation’s history,”writes Robert F. Moss in Barbecue: TheHistory of an American Institution. It sounds implausible: how could there beanything distinctively American about cooking meat over an open fire, surelythe oldest of culinary technologies? Weren’t the cavemen already doing it, anddidn’t European settlers know how to roast beef and pork before they landed inthe New World? And yet, Moss shows, there was something about the way NativeAmericans barbecued, slow-roasting whole animalson a raised platform of sticks over a bed of coal,that struck European observers as fascinatingly exotic. Some of the first booksabout the exploration of North America feature woodcuts of barbecues—a 1590engraving, reproduced in Barbecue,shows Indians in what is now North Carolina barbecuing fish—and the worditself, common to tribes in the Caribbean and along the East Coast, quicklyentered 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 ofFalmouth, Maine celebrated with a barbecue. But after the Revolution, it seemsto have died out north of the Mason-Dixon line, becoming a distinctivelySouthern custom. Spreading from Virginia to the south and west, barbecueevolved from a cooking technique—pigs and cows were slowly roasted over coalpits, and basted with a sauce made of butter, vinegar, salt and pepper—into afolk celebration. In particular, barbecues became political events, wherecandidates would court voters with a feast while delivering speeches. (In the1840 presidential election, supporters of William Henry Harrison had abarbecue-related slogan: “Democrats,/They eat rats!/But Whigs/Eat pigs!)And the patriotic Fourth of July barbecue was already popular in the early 19thcentury—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 fraughtwith racial politics. It was common for white men to toast liberty atIndependence Day barbecues where the pits were staffed by African-Americanslaves. Slave-owners also used barbecues to reward their slaves and demonstratetheir own benevolence: to Frederick Douglass, such feasts were “the mosteffective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit ofinsurrection.” At the same time, however, barbecues were one of the fewoccasions where slaves could meet with neighbors from other plantations. It’sno coincidence that the Nat Turner rebellion began at a barbecue.
As the country changed, Moss explains, barbecue changed with it. Withthe rise of the automobile came roadside barbecue stands, which could beconsidered 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. Yetnew technologies also made barbecuing, of a kind, more popular than ever. Inthe postwar suburbs, backyard Weber grills made it possible for millions toshare in the old rustic ritual—even though hamburgers and hot dogs, served withsweet, tomato-based sauce from Kraft, were eons away from the traditional hogsbasted in vinegar or mustard. In this sense, Moss shows, barbecue is a perfectexample of the way Americans continue to reinvent themselves and theirtraditions, creating at least a nominal continuity even as the ways we live,and eat, change beyond recognition.
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