Why Barbecue Is An Essential Part of Black History
Pitmasters and experts share how the cuisine has shaped African American culture for centuries.
Every summer of my child and teenagehood was peppered with cookouts. Sweaty coolers filled with Little Hug juice containers, enough aluminum foil rolls laying around to seal several months’ worth of leftovers, Cameo blasting through a small boombox, and, of course, the sounds of my dad and uncles going back and forth over whose ribs were better.
After the passing of my grandfather—the true patriarchal glue of that side of my family—the large, food-centric gatherings ceased. Last month was the third anniversary of his death and it got me thinking about these cookouts that took me years to really appreciate and cherish. How memories of eating pulled pork, ribs, chicken, hot dogs, and hamburgers would end up bringing me comfort when I least expected it. It really cemented the idea of barbecues being universal to the Black American experience.
Barbecue aka BBQ is an integral cuisine to Black history and, by default, American history. But its roots are traced to Indigenous Caribbeans. In Adrian Miller’s new book Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, he writes that the earliest account of what we think of barbecue as today goes back to 1513 when Taíno, the Indigenous People of the Caribbean discovered Christopher Columbus and his crew stealing and eating all of their meats being cooked over green, wood fires—including rabbit, fish, and “serpents,” which were believed to be iguanas.
The exact origins of the word “barbeque” are a little unclear and messy, much like a good sauce. But the word “barbacoa,” which is where our current term is adapted from, is attributed to what the Spanish called the Indigenous Peoples’ way of cooking meats over a wooden platform.
“When you hear about the early history of barbecue, the Native Americans are kind of a side note, right?” Miller tells us. “It’s just like, ‘Oh, some Europeans noticed how Native Americans were cooking and they took it over, added their European animals, took that from the Caribbean to the American South and barbecue was formed.’ And that just never really made sense to me because that ignores what Indigenous People and the American South were already doing before Europeans showed up. I wanted to look at what kind of cooking they were doing.”
Similarly to how those Native American traditions have long been an afterthought, I noticed that contributions of African Americans made to the cuisine often still go unnoticed today, despite barbecue’s constant presence in my family at the hands of Black men and women.
South Carolina native and pitmaster Howard Conyers, who earned a Master of Science and PhD in mechanical engineering at Duke University, grew up around barbecue his entire life and also points at a lack of diversity at media companies as one reason for this problem.
“If we’re not in the media outlets in certain positions, we don't get the opportunity to tell the stories in a real way. And I think that's a long-time issue,” Conyers says. “The South has something to say. But if the media is not down there to see it, it’s missed. The major media outlets in America are in New York or the West Coast. The South is very rich, but we’re not present.”
Outside of the barbecue icon Kansas City, the South holds it down on the cuisine with North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, and yes, even Alabama being top destinations to visit if you want an actually good plate of grilled meat.
In Conyers’ hometown of Manning, South Carolina, he traces his experiences with barbecue back to when he was five years old listening to the conversations that were being held around the barbecue pit while his family was cooking a whole hog. “When we had the barbecue and the family came over, it was such fellowship and camaraderie,” he remembers. “After we finished cooking the hog, we brought it in, put it on the kitchen table or the countertop, and we ate it just like that.”
A majority of the information Conyers learned about the history and culture surrounding barbecue was told to him verbally, starting with a stunning realization that stemmed from a sketch of a pit from his father.
“I was giving a lecture at Dillard University and I asked my father if he could draw a sketch of the pit he learned how to cook with because we didn't take any pictures of when we were cooking barbecue as a kid,” he says. “He drew a pit of a hole in the ground where he cooked and when I looked at that pit and compared it to what those pictures in the 1930s, 1940s and the late 1800s looked like, it told me that my connection to barbecue was directly tied into slavery. My father didn't do any research. He just did what was shared with him, and then as a cook, you learn to do things over time.”
“What people fail to realize is Black women were always in barbecue—just not in large numbers.”
He then describes his next course of action after this discovery as a “wild goose chase,” where he sought out all the information he could about Black people and barbecue. This brought him to reading through the WPA Slave Narratives in the Library of Congress for any evidence of barbecuing in the South. These documents contain more than 2,000 first-person accounts of former enslaved Africans transcribed from audio recordings.
Despite the intertwined relationship of Black people and barbecue—from slavery to present day—their contributions are still being ignored. Conyers points out that, in 2015, Fox News published a story about America’s most influential pitmasters and there was not one Black person on the list.
A few standout Black pitmasters that Conyers feels are carrying the torch the ancestors laid down include names like Rodney Scott, Ed Mitchell, Bryan Furman, Shalamar Lane, Erica Blaire, and Cory and Tara Davis, to name a few. He’s also quick to point out that women pitmasters of color rarely get their due.
“I’m excited to see what Black women do in barbecue,” Conyers says. “What people fail to realize is Black women were always in barbecue—just not in large numbers. Sometimes they did specialized tasks, like making the barbecue sauces, but sometimes they also did the cooking. There was this person in my community who cooked whole hogs just as good as the men. But she may be one of five in the community.”
As recently as October 2020, Desiree Robinson became the first Black woman to be inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. Robinson co-founded Memphis’ BBQ staple Cozy Corner and will hopefully pave the way for more Black women to be recognized for their achievements and accomplishments in the barbecue world. Take Sherice Garner, who co-founded Houston’s SouthernQ BBQ along with her husband Steve and learned how to barbecue from Steve’s mother. The couple opened their first brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2015 after catering for several years.
“My husband’s mom actually did all the barbecuing in his family,” she says. “His mom was a fantastic cook, great baker, great barbecuer. His dad was a truck driver, so whenever there was a family event, he was often gone, so she would do the barbecue. She was just somebody that truly had a heart and a love for food and family and we gravitated toward that. I started barbecuing because of her.”
Texas barbecue styles are incredibly distinct and SouthernQ BBQ’s style leans more toward East Texas style with Cajun flavors influenced by neighboring Louisiana. Sherice and Steve use old-school, traditional smokers to cook their meats, like the popular brisket that takes up to 18 hours and is seasoned with homemade rub. But with the vast array of BBQ styles the state offers, Garner says diversity amongst who is over the pits has been getting better and better.
“We’ve done quite a few festivals and we get to meet other pitmasters and talk to them. They recently started inviting diverse pitmasters to these things because, I can tell you, it would be like 30 barbecue restaurants out of Houston invited to a festival and it wasn’t uncommon to be the only Black restaurant, or one of two out of 30,” Garner says. “We’ve seen it change over the past five years. We’ve seen Asian brothers or sisters opening restaurants. It’s really amazing to see the different flavors that are coming into the Texas barbecue scene. It's much more inclusive now.”
Though the American barbecue scene has made recent strides in terms of diversifying and recognizing its pitmasters, there is still plenty of work to do and recognizing the cuisine’s complicated history might just be the first step.
“I always tell people that my book is part celebration and part restoration,” Miller says about Black Smoke. “One key part is to celebrate different aspects of African-American barbecue culture, which I don’t think are known to the broader public: how African Americans like their ribs and why sauce still matters, things like that. Then the other thing is restoration and it’s to bring African Americans back to the center of the barbecue narrative.”
Kristen Adaway is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her @kristenadaway.