Why do I care about the ups and downs of black barbecue? Because it goes far beyond just enjoying the barbecue. It’s because I was radicalized by something I watched on TV. In fact, it’s more about what I didn’t see than what I saw.
In May 2004, I was intrigued by a Food Network promotional ad for a one-hour special called Paula’s Southern BBQ. At the time, I knew a lot more about barbecue than the host, Paula Deen, and I hoped that Deen would present more of an insight into southern barbecue culture rather than just a cooking class or a cooking contest. I logged in for the show. By the time the credits rolled, however, my mouth had dropped open, not out of an appetite for the barbecue, but because I was amazed that no African Americans had been interviewed on camera. I saw background shots of black people doing the actual work, but they were nameless and speechless. Today, it may sound naïve, but I remember thinking, turning off the television, “Is this what the black barbecues have become? Are these just B-roll sequences now? Perhaps I had misread the advertisements for the show – perhaps it was promoted as Paula’s Scandinavian Barbecue, sponsored by Alabama White Sauce?
It’s easy to beat Deen, given the allegations of racism and inappropriate appropriation that surfaced against her five years later, but I think the show’s production team shares the blame. They are the ones who scout filming locations, decide who will be in front of the camera and write the scripts. Had she had it in her, Deen could have leveraged her star power to create a more inclusive show, but it certainly wasn’t a solo act. Apparently no one had the vision. True, I saw this show only once, so to write my impressions I rely only on my shocked memories.
This episode made a big impression on me. It showed me that amidst all this abundance of barbecues, something was missing. What was missing was public recognition and appreciation for African American barbecues and what they had contributed to this hallowed culinary tradition. Imagine grilling meat directly over a slow flame. A nice balance exists as the meat cooks slowly while the fat drips periodically to fuel the fire and provide flavor. Then, after several hours of cooking, someone decides to gradually move the fire to the side of the grill, completely away from the meat, and continue grilling indirectly. Black barbecues have also been pushed from the center to the margins of the barbecue.
How could and did this happen? Black smoke answers this question. I will bring the black barbecues back to the center of the fire. I’m going to show you how, gradually, gently and tenderly, some very influential traditional and digital food media platforms, which decide who gets attention and what stories get told, fell deeply in love with four types of White Guys Who Barbecue. They are: the Urban Hipster, who sports interesting tattoos, facial hair and stylish glasses; the Rural Bubba, who is a guy in overalls and a cap that you might see on the TV shows “Duck Dynasty” or the “Dukes of Hazzard” (1970s version); the gourmet chefs who have entered the barbecue game; and some guys who are a combination of the above.
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The media coverage of these white people is so intense, comprehensive and consistent that one could easily wonder if black people are barbecuing. Before Rodney Scott won the 2018 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast, arguably the most high-profile African American barbecue was the fictional Freddy Hayes, who regularly served ribs to the evil President Frank Underwood in satire Netflix’s hit policy “House of Cards.” “The whole situation is boring enough for a nice guy like me to develop a ‘resting BBQ face’.
This is all so strange because before the 1990s, the food media regularly and overwhelmingly acknowledged black barbecues – so much so that, to this day, many people believe that African Americans invented the barbecue. Additionally, a general consensus emerged in the late 19th century that African-American barbecues made the best and most authentic barbecue. Even the racist white people didn’t pass up the barbecue made by an African American. During the reign of black barbecues, barbecue was widely portrayed in the media as hearty, messy, labor-intensive food that was the delicious result of extensive, exhaustive, and specialized menial labor. And while what these black barbecues did often fit the definition of culinary craftsmanship perfectly, it was rarely presented that way to the general public.
Consider today’s conventional wisdom about what barbecue is. Your mental checklist likely includes mediocre or tough cuts of meat that need to be cooked at a low temperature for a long time (“low and slow,” in common parlance), served without sauce, and with a social media-friendly appearance. Such thinking gained momentum in the 1990s and consequently, and unfairly, redefined barbecue away from the long-standing traditions of African-American barbecue. This is where Obi-Wan Kenobi’s opening quote comes in. I know he lived a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but what Kenobi said to Luke Skywalker easily applies to the current state of the barbecue. So many people are heavily invested in drawing partisan lines about what real barbecue is, but they don’t want to see how arbitrarily drawn those lines are. As “Black Smoke” will explain, the definition of barbecue, locally and globally, is highly dependent on time, place, class, race, and a fair amount of myth-making.
Black smoke matters because there’s so much more to barbecue than ever before. Barbecue’s profile is much higher in terms of reach, cultural value and potential profitability. The barbecue is now considered an urbanized artisanal kitchen made by so-called pitmasters with their own tribe of foodies. A barbecue guy who knows PR and social media – or any figure with just enough barbecue expertise to be authoritative – can now make big bucks selling high-priced barbecues, hosting events specials and selling a range of accessories, cookbooks and instructional videos. Barbecue circuit competitors have won up to one hundred thousand dollars in a single weekend.
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Even barbecue writers can participate in this lucrative act. I was surprised to learn that Steven Raichlen, a prolific barbecue writer, has his own line of barbecue equipment. He inspired me to develop a line of very stretchy barbecue clothing with elastics in strategic places. Look for it soon on the fashion catwalks of Milan and Paris.
As the cultural terrain of barbecue has shifted and revenue streams have poured in, the lack of inclusive mainstream food media coverage has effectively told African-American barbecuers, “We just aren’t that drawn to you.” This means that black barbecues have not flourished as much as their white counterparts, even though they have made a significant contribution to culinary tradition.
The contemporary barbecue scene is deja vu to me. Since the early 2000s, African American chefs – some by choice, others by circumstance or lack of resources – have missed opportunities to profit from the food traditions they created or elevated to art. . Think fried chicken (especially the hot Nashville version), shrimp and grits, and whole animal cuisine. The same does not have to happen with the barbecue. I want African Americans to benefit in these BBQ boom times. Black smoke changes the current narrative by educating readers about the glorious past, vibrant present, and expansive future of African American barbecue culture.
Black smoke is part celebration and part restoration. Black smoke shows how African-American barbecue culture unfolds and describes the fascinating people who bring it to life and continue to push its boundaries. Black smoke is a story of creativity and resilience in a time of formidable economic, political, social and racial challenges. Black smoke shows that the only way to spark a serious discussion about American barbecue is to include African Americans. Black smoke is not intended to be a revival or some kind of fresh breath on the glowing embers of a dying culinary tradition. On the contrary, Black smoke shows that African-American barbecue traditions live on and that barbecue storytelling to the general public should be more inclusive.