The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture and Barbecue in the Mid-South

The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: Culture and Barbecue in the Mid-South


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Texas has its barbecue tradition, and a library of books to go with it. Same with the Carolinas. The mid-South, however, is a region with as many opinions as styles of cooking. In The Slaw and the Slow Cooked, editors James Veteto and Edward Maclin seek to right a wrong--namely, a deeper understanding of the larger experience of barbecue in this legendary American culinary territory.

In developing the book, Veteto and Maclin cast a wide net for divergent approaches. Food writer John Edge introduces us to Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, Arkansas, a possibly century-old restaurant serving top-notch pork and simultaneously challenging race and class boundaries. Kristen Bradley-Shurtz explores the 150-plus-year tradition of the St. Patrick's Irish Picnic in McEwen, Tennessee. And no barbecue book would be complete without an insider's story, provided here by Jonathan Deutsch's "embedded" reporting inside a competitive barbecue team. Veteto and Maclin conclude with a glimpse into the future of barbecue culture: online, in the smoker, and fresh from the farm.

The Slaw and the Slow Cooked stands as a challenge to barbecue aficionados and a statement on the Mid-South's important place at the table. Intended for food lovers, anthropologists, and sociologists alike, The Slaw and the Slow Cooked demonstrates barbecue's status as a common language of the South.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826518026
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 01/30/2012
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

James R. Veteto is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Texas. He is Director of the Southern Seed Legacy.

Edward M. Maclin is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia.

Read an Excerpt

The Slaw and the Slow Cooked

Culture and Barbecue in the Mid-South

By James R. Veteto, Edward M. Maclin

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2011 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1803-3


Smoked Meat and the Anthropology of Food

An Introduction

James R. Veteto and Edward M. Maclin

It seems only fitting that anthropology would have an interest in the slow cooking of meat on a spit over an open pit of coals, as it is one of the most ancient ways of food preparation known to human beings. Yet it is also a contemporary foodway in many parts of the world, so its persistence spans nearly the whole trajectory, as we currently know it, of human cultural experience. Many would perhaps not be surprised then that the much discussed and maligned etymology of the word barbecue can be traced to the Spanish word barbacoa, a bastardization of an American Indian term, used by the pioneering nineteenth-century anthropologist E. B. Tylor to describe "a framework of sticks set upon posts" (used by the Arawak of Hispaniola to smoke animals over a hot coals) in his work Researches into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization (cited in Warnes 2008). Of course, Andrew Warnes has argued that Tylor's term was significantly lacking in accuracy and infused with Eurocentrism. Nonetheless, it is striking that one of the founding fathers of anthropology has been so influential in the origin and spread of the word that we now know, in English, simply as "barbecue" (so much so that the Oxford English Dictionary cites Tylor, apparently inaccurately, as the original authority on the term).

Nearly all anthropologists, and perhaps a smattering of other anthropologically savvy readers, will recognize that our title is a play on the book The Raw and the Cooked, by the great French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1969). Lévi-Strauss saw these two categories of food as representing a pair of binary opposites that denoted a deeper level of structural organization universally common to all human beings. Ours is not quite such a broad claim. By denoting "Slaw" and "Slow Cooked," we have pointed out two components of a barbecue meal that are ubiquitously present in all subregions of the American South. However, that is where our modest structural analysis will end, not the least of reasons being that the human culinary variation laid upon those two basic categories of food is so dazzlingly diverse and particular that it prompted barbecue scholar John Shelton Reed to famously make the observation that "Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Europe's wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes" (2004, 78).

Situated among a wide diversity of world barbecue traditions are those of the American South, where intraregional variations of slow-cooked, smoked meat have an almost cultlike following. It is an oft-repeated saying in the South that there are three subjects that must either be avoided in casual conversation or be defended to the death, and those are, in no particular order, religion, politics, and barbecue (with college football not far behind as a fourth contentious topic). This book is a collection of essays that articulate a kaleidoscopic look at one of the major barbecue regions within the U.S. South, that of the Mid-South. West Tennessee/Memphis is the best known, and arguably the hub, of the Mid-South barbecue tradition and as such receives the bulk of our attention. Yet the spokes of this hub reach out into neighboring subregions and states. This collection investigates snapshots of Mid-South barbecue from middle Tennessee and Mississippi to central and southern Arkansas, and even into the Piney Woods of northernmost Louisiana.

Our delineation of the Mid-South is, of course, to a large extent arbitrary, but has also been borne out through the life experiences and ethnographic work of the authors. Veteto came of age eating barbecue at family gatherings and roadside joints between Lexington, Tennessee, and Hot Springs, Arkansas, every summer, and Maclin grew up firmly in the West Tennessee barbecue tradition from the vantage point of his family's historic farmstead near Stanton, Tennessee. Though Veteto noticed differences between the barbecue served in Lexington and Hot Springs, he also observed that they were a lot more similar to each other than to the barbecue of North Carolina, Georgia, or Texas. Other scholars have likewise noticed continuity in the barbecue of the Mid-South, but have defined the region in slightly different geographic terms. For instance, Southern food writer John Egerton sees Mid-South barbecue as existing in the section of Tennessee "that includes the area north of Jackson and around Dyersburg. It extends into parts of Arkansas and Kentucky. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but that's barbecue country to me" (qtd. in Kelly 2007, 112). In this book we will attempt to define our interpretation of Mid-South barbecue as we go along. We are confident that readers will get a better understanding of the variety and commonalities of barbecue served within the region as they read through the case studies presented in this volume. We will also challenge the boundaries of our delineated region by presenting case studies from border areas such as the Timberlands of southern Arkansas and northernmost Louisiana, where barbecue enthusiasts are torn between two competing traditions: the Delta-style Mid-South pork barbecue and vinegar-based sauces found in the eastern portion of the Timberlands, and the Texas-style beef brisket and sweeter sauces found in its more westerly locations (see Nolan, Chapter 4, this volume).

Unfortunately, Southern barbecue has received scant attention in the vast literature of the anthropology of food. Warnes (2008) argues that this is because of a bias by famous anthropological food scholars such as Sidney Mintz, who dismiss the assumed-to-be completely invented, commercialized, and unhealthy nature of Southern barbecue in favor of the more organic and traditional lifeways of regions such as Mediterranean Europe. Warnes also argues that Southern barbecue revels in disdain toward such elitist notions, upholding its grease, paper towels, plastic plates and cutlery, and drive-through windows in an almost punklike contempt for the conventions of an effete Western civilization, and that such competing attitudes are to some extent a carryover from the relegation of native ways of cooking meat to a barbaric and "savage slot" by the very first European explorers to visit the New World. Whatever the reasons for the absence of serious anthropological scholarship on Southern barbecue, the resulting silence is one that we hope to, at least in part, begin to rectify with the publication of this volume.

In fact, the barbecue tradition of the Mid-South touches on many of the themes current in the anthropology of food and culture, and we will highlight several of the most salient here. To start, it is a culturally constructed phenomenon that is both traditional in many regards and at the same time undergoing constant change and reformulation. Warnes (2008) traces the construction of barbecue to Spanish conquistadors who characterized the cooking of various meats over fire and coal as a savage and barbaric act. The early essentialisms of the conquistadors continued wherever waves of European colonists cast their gaze upon the native "savages" of the New World and their "primitive" cooking techniques. This historical revision, using his own interpretation and expansion of the theoretical framework set forth in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger's classic The Invention of Tradition (1983), has led Warnes to draw the following conclusion: "We need to grasp that this most contentious food is necessarily transatlantic—that European ideas of the primitive have shaped it from Day One, and that its native credentials have been somewhat overstated. We need to grasp, in other words, that barbecue is an invented tradition" (2008, 4). After making a complex historical argument about the Eurocentric and racist origins of Southern barbecue, Warnes also notes that the dubious history of barbecue has helped influence, but has maintained a degree of separation from, a "pit" barbecue tradition that has quite often served to help bridge deep racial divides. It is with this pit tradition that this volume is primarily engaged. Although Warnes's observation that Southern barbecue is an invented tradition is a point well taken and undoubtedly an important contribution to the history of the evolution of the cuisine, his assertion that barbecue was essentialized as savage by an all-embracing and seemingly homogeneous European gaze is probably somewhat overstated.

John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed (2008), for example, have traced Southern barbecue in the North Carolina Piedmont tradition back to its predecessors in German-speaking and other regions of Europe and found that the barbecuing of meat slowly over hot coals has been an acceptable form of cooking since at least the Middle Ages. Smoked pork shoulder, or Schäufele, is a specialty in the Franconia region of southern Germany, where pork is the traditional meat of the peasant classes. Tracing the lineages of the founding purveyors of barbecue restaurants in and around Lexington, North Carolina, Reed and Reed show that they all come from significantly German heritages, and it is more than likely that their ancestors sprang from a large German peasantry who immigrated to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They conclude that slow-smoked pork, flavored with vinegar and other spices, was not in fact a taste that was alien and "savage" to German American immigrants, but a time-honored tradition they brought with them from the Old World that changed and evolved as they met with then-exotic New World ingredients such as tomatoes and peppers. The tensions between the constructed and well-researched histories provided by Warnes and by Reed and Reed are symptomatic of larger issues pertaining to the push-and-pull or hybridizing tendencies of cultural forces such as tradition, change, invention and reinvention, modernity, revitalization, and essentialism that are present in almost all contemporary studies of food and culture in anthropology (e.g., Counihan and Van Esterik 1997) and other disciplines.

Identity formation is also a central theme in food and culture studies, and "like all culturally defined material substances used in the creation and maintenance of social relationships, food serves to both solidify group membership and set groups apart.... Ethnicity is born of acknowledged difference and works through contrast.... Once imagined, such cuisines provide added concreteness to the idea of national or ethnic identity" (Mintz and Dubois 2002, 109). Southern barbecue is a tradition and cuisine that has been used both to promote in-group regional solidarity and (by outsiders) to denigrate those who participate in eating it. No other foodstuff has contributed more to the formation and delineation of diverse Southern identities: "Of all the signature foods of the South, none unites and divides the region like barbecue. When it comes to barbecue, southerners cannot agree on meat, sauce, technique, side dishes, or even how to spell the word. What they can agree on is that barbecue in all its variety is one of the fond traditions that makes the South the South. It drifts across class and racial distinctions like the sweet vapors over hickory embers" (Auchmutey 2007, 22–23).

In other words, to be a Southerner is to love barbecue with very few exceptions. And to be a North Carolinian is to love either Eastern or Piedmont styles of barbecue, to be from West Tennessee is to love to order particular cuts of meat from the whole hog, to be from Memphis is to prefer shoulder sandwiches and wet or dry ribs, and to be from most of Texas is to expect nothing but smoked beef brisket the moment the word barbecue has been uttered. And these are not just rhetorical and stylistic arguments—they are fundamental to the identity formation of each situated Southerner who claims them. In North Carolina, defenders of Eastern-style whole-hog barbecue served with a sauce consisting of little more than "God's own apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper" (Dennis Rogers, qtd. in Reed and Reed 2008, 38) insist that they are preparing barbecue in the old, traditional, orthodox manner, as opposed to the Piedmont-based "upstarts" who prepare their barbecue shoulders "Lexington style" and serve it with a "dip" that sinfully includes miniscule amounts of tomato. The Piedmont purveyors of Lexington-style barbecue, by contrast, insist that there are parts of the whole hog that you just do not want to eat and that they have vastly improved on methods that began in the eastern part of the state but have remained locked in a pattern of semi-arrested infancy there (Reed and Reed 2008).

John Shelton Reed has even gone so far as to suggest that Southerners replace that long-standing and controversial symbol of pan-Southern regional identity, the rebel flag, with a more fitting representation of their cultural unity:

I once suggested half-seriously that if the South needs a new flag—as it surely does—we could do no worse than to use a dancing pig with a knife and fork. You want to talk about heritage, not hate.... That represents a heritage we all share and can take pride in. Barbecue both symbolizes and contributes to community. And that's without even mentioning its noncommercial manifestations—for instance, in matters like fund-raising for volunteer fire departments. But there's another side to this coin. It's often the case, and it is in this one, too, that community is reinforced by emphasizing its differences from and with outsiders. (2004, 81)

He goes on to elaborate on how barbecue helps to create and maintain diversity among unique and localized Southern identities:

As I wrote once, barbecue is not like grits—in more ways than just the obvious. Grits (if you'll excuse the image) glue the South together. Barbecue, on the other hand—well, you could say that it pits community against community. This rivalry, this competitive aspect of barbecue, has been institutionalized in the formal contests that seem to have become a permanent feature of the Southern landscape.

... And those traditions reflect and reinforce the fierce localism that has always been a Southern characteristic, the "sense of place" that literary folk claim to find in Southern fiction, the devotion to states' rights and local autonomy that was an establishment characteristic of Southern politics long before it became a major headache for the Confederate States of America. (2004, 82)

Across much of the South and the Mid-South, ethnicity, for better or worse, is often cast in terms of a binary distinction between black and white. This is despite considerable ethnic and racial diversity within the region. In one sense, such a dualistic distinction makes life seemingly simpler, but it also washes over a great deal of underlying cultural variation. And the barbecue tradition of the Mid-South is not immune from this tendency, often being cast solely in terms of black and white by those who participate in eating and discussing it. The racial politics and identities associated with barbecue are touched on from various angles in many of the essays in this collection and are instructive in the complexity that they reveal. We refrain from commenting much more on this controversial subject here, preferring instead to let our readers form their own interpretations of the empirical fieldwork presented in the case studies that follow. We will say that it is clear that large numbers of people from various ethnic backgrounds are involved in and knowledgeable experts at preparing and celebrating the countless delicious variations of unique local barbecues. The importance of barbecue to the identity (in all of its complex forms) of Southerners across the Mid-South is a theme that continually interweaves itself throughout most of the essays in this volume.

The ritual aspects of eating have been identified by anthropologists as another central theme in food and culture studies (Sutton 2001; Mintz and Dubois 2002). This theme is not lost on food writers engaging Southern barbecue; William Schmidt, for example, has described barbecue as "a cultural ritual, practiced with a kind of religious fervor among various barbecue sects, each of whom believes their particular concoction of smoke and sauce and spices is the only true way to culinary salvation" (qtd. in Reed and Reed 2008, 7). John Egerton has also couched his observations about Southern barbecue in overtly religious terms: "There are more barbecue factions and smoked-meat sects around here, each with its own hair-splitting distinctions, than there are denominations in the far-flung Judeo-Christian establishment" (1990, 67).


Excerpted from The Slaw and the Slow Cooked by James R. Veteto, Edward M. Maclin. Copyright © 2011 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by Gary Paul Nabhan

Chapter One: Introduction: Smoked Meat and the Anthropology of Food - James R. Veteto and Edward M. Maclin

Chapter Two: A History of Barbecue in the Mid-South Region - Robert Moss

Chapter Three: Patronage in the Pits: A Portrait, in Black and White, of Jones Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna, Arkansas - John T. Edge

Chapter Four: Piney Woods Traditions at the Crossroads: Barbecue and Regional Identity in South Arkansas and North Louisiana - Justin M. Nolan

Chapter Five: Priests, Pork Shoulders, and Chicken Halves: Barbecue for a Cause at St. Patrick's Irish Picnic - Kristen Bradley-Shurtz

Chapter Six: Identity, Authenticity, Persistence and Loss in the West TN Whole Hog Barbecue Tradition - Rien Fertel Chapter Seven: The Changing Landscape of Mid-South Barbecue - Edward M. Maclin

Chapter Eight: Swine by Design: Inside a Competition Barbecue Team - Jonathan Deutsch

Chapter Nine: Barbecue as Slow Food - Angela Knipple and Paul Knipple

Chapter Ten: Southern Barbecue Sauce and Heirloom Tomatoes - James R. Veteto

Chapter Eleven: Mid-South Barbecue in the Digital Age and Sustainable Future Directions - Edward M. Maclin and James R. Veteto

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