Friday, November 16

Toward an African American Barbecue Aesthetic

One last dispatch from barbecue guest blogger Adrian Miller. Thank you, Adrian, for the informative, thought-provoking posts you wrote for us all summer and fall! Follow Adrian on Twitter at @soulfoodscholar, and look for his book on soul food (UNC Press) to hit shelves in 2013.

"You don't have to be a black pit master to serve good barbecue." Barbecue aficionado John Egerton raised this point during a "Barbecue Interrogatory" that he presented with Lolis Eric Elie—another superb subject matter expert—at the Southern Foodways Alliance's recent symposium on barbecue. Egerton's conclusion was part of his effort to explode enduring barbecue myths, and it certainly squares with my personal experience. In recent years, barbecue culture has witnessed an impressive wave of new cooks, enthusiasts, judges and restaurateurs.

With all of these new people joining the party, I expected to see more barbecue experimentation. Instead, barbecue proprietors have put more energy into standardizing the meats, sauces and sides they offer.  My main gripe with this trend is that barbecue restaurants try to be all things to all people ,which makes them kind of boring. If you're as alarmed by that state of affairs as I am, black-run barbecue joints are a refuge from the rising tide of homogenization. The proprietors know their customers, and they cling more closely to tradition…even when such tradition evokes a time when African Americans were less prosperous as a group. 

After years of reviewing historical sources, menus and doing some good old-fashioned eating, I've distilled some unique qualities that black-run barbecue joints have had. One distinction is serving untrimmed pork spareribs with the brisket bone, skirt meat and rib tips intact as opposed to the popular "St. Louis cut" that removes these to create a visually-appealing, rectangular shape. Black-run places are more likely to bring comfort to those craving some unusual, lesser cuts or types of barbecued meat like alligator legs, bologna, goat, coarsely ground and bright-red hot link sausages, mutton, or rib tips.

Not surprisingly, some distinctions that black-run restaurants had have evaporated. A number of mainstream barbecue places have gone beyond the baked beans-coleslaw-potato salad trinity to include southern sides and desserts like greens and peach cobbler on their menus. Another converging point has been the proliferation of fiery barbecue sauces now offered in restaurants—something that was almost exclusively the calling card of black pit masters.

As the African American experience shows, we can still come to a common barbecue table without forsaking some cultural culinary preferences. Vive la difference!