Thrillist, the “men’s digital lifestyle brand,” recently ran a profoundly silly round-up called “50 Things You Didn’t Know About BBQ.” Ignorance, in this case, might indeed be bliss. Some of the 50 are trivial “weird news” items, like an event in Sweden where a gluten-based replica of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was barbecued. Others items are just plain wrong.
Thrillist claims, for example, that the director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a whole-hog barbecue expert and rocket scientist named Jyl Benson “because in the South men are named Jyl, and into rocket science and pulled pork sandwiches.” Actually, Benson is the director of culinary programming for the museum, and she (not he) isn’t too up on rocket science. Thrillist has confused her with Howard Conyers, a NASA engineer and whole hog cook, whom the museum featured at a recent event (one in which I participated as a speaker.)
Even more irritating is the very first item in the list, which claims that barbecued brisket came about because of “stingy late-1800s cattle barons and resourceful cowboys.” Those cattle barons, according to Thrillist, didn’t want to waste choice cuts of beef on their ranch hands so they gave them brisket instead. “The cowboys soon figured out if they cooked it for a long time over low heat, it wasn’t just palatable, it was . . . awesome.”
Sure they did. This is a much-repeated barbecue myth, and it’s not just applied to brisket. “During difficult economic times in the South,” the Encyclopedia of Alabama declares, “barbecueing was an inexpensive way for the working-class to bring flavor and tenderness to even the most inexpensive cuts of meat.” Claire Suddath advances a similar notion in Time’s “A Brief History of Barbecue”. “Because barbecue doesn’t require expensive cuts of meat,” she claims, “it became a dietary staple for impoverished Southern blacks, who frequently paired it with vegetables like fried okra and sweet potatoes.”
As is often the case with food origin myths, these tales get things exactly backwards. Barbecue did not originate as a way to transform cheap cuts of meat into something palatable. Instead, it started as a way to cook all of the cuts of meat at one time, for barbecue originally was a form of whole animal cookery.
In the 19th century, barbecues were large-scale outdoor events, and local farmers donated valuable livestock for the occasion—pigs, cows, sheep, goats, or whatever else they had on hand. On the Fourth of July in the antebellum South, long before refrigeration and reliable supplies of ice, fresh meat didn’t stay fresh for very long. The animals were typically taken to the site of the barbecue and slaughtered right there by the pits.
Barbecue, in other words, didn’t start out as poverty food or a way to make do during hard times. Barbecue was a splurge, the food of celebration—what people turned to when they wanted to go whole hog, if you will. It cut across lines of class and race, too, for whether white or black, rich or poor, Southerners turned to the barbecue pit when it was time to celebrate.
When the tracks for a new railroad line were laid, the citizens of each town along the way greeted the first train with a massive community barbecue. Troops returning from war were welcomed home with barbecue. Ambitious politicians knew that the best way to attract a crowd for their speechifying was to dig a long pit and start cooking meat.
Enslaved African-Americans were the cooks for most of these events, and they made barbecue for themselves, too. A barbecue was the standard way to celebrate Christmas on Southern plantations, and after the Civil War it became the central feature of annual Emancipation Day gatherings as well as family reunions and other occasions that called for a special treat.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century—with the advent of restaurants, mechanical refrigeration, and commercial meat distribution—that cooks started specializing in specific cuts of meat. Over time, restaurants in the Piedmont of North Carolina standardized on pork shoulders, while down in Texas meat market operators ordered entire forequarters of beef, carved off what they could sell fresh as roasts, and smoked the leftover pieces—the chuck, the shoulder—on their barbecue pits. As Daniel Vaughn details in his “History of Smoked Brisket”, no Texas restaurants were cooking briskets until the 1960s, when wholesalers started shipping them in individual vacuum packs.
So let’s put aside this notion that barbecue was the product of economy and want. Yes, slow-smoking can transform tough, inexpensive cuts into something temptingly delicious, but it can do wonders with the prized cuts, too. Just ask anyone who has experienced the sheer joy of “money meat” (the tenderloin) pulled straight from a whole hog while it’s still on the pit.
Barbecue may not be fancy food, but it’s not poverty food, either. Perhaps we should just call it “celebration food.” I like the sound of that.