When I think about traditional barbecue as practiced by Native Americans, I picture smaller cuts of meat being smoked on a raised framework over a slow fire, or large chunks of meat wrapped up and cooked in trenches filled with burning hardwood coals. History has shown me that some Native Americans had a third way with barbecue—the “inclined stick” technique. In his book, The Southeastern Indians(1976), Charles Hudson culled from eighteenth-century sources that the Native Americans in the Lower Mississippi Valley “barbecued fish, small animals, and pieces of meat of larger animals by impaling them on one end of a sharpened stick; the other end of the stick was stuck in the ground with the stick inclined toward the fire. They turned hte stick from time to time to cook the meat evenly.” [emphasis added]
This barbecue technique was not limited to the American South, for tribes in the Pacific Northwest have long used the same approach to cook salmon. Sometimes the salmon was hung above an alder or cedar wood fire, and other times the fish were splayed on a specialized wooden frame that was then angled toward the fire. The cook could adjust the level of heat and smoking by moving the frame closer to or away from the fire. So, the next time you get into a heated discussion with someone about defining authentic barbecue, lay this angle on them.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered in this post to celebrate the union of love and barbecue.
With the summer wedding season in full swing, love is in the air—and it is increasingly followed by the perfume of burning wood and smoking meat. Once confined to the South, more and more wedding rehearsal dinners and receptions across the country feature a barbecue-laden feast. Recently, as I was leaving his son’s wedding, a Colorado barbecue man—by way of Opelousas, Louisiana—gave me a parting gift of some alligator meat to smoke.
Some couples go whole hog for efficiency by holding their ceremony and reception at a barbecue restaurant. Texans seem to do this the most.
Aside from these examples, which suggest barbecue as love ex post facto, but how does barbecue spark love? Ophelia Pinkard Taylor, in her 1984 oral history of the Juneteenth holiday in Texas, offered this: “Tradition has it that no maker of a good barbecue sauce will give the recipe to outsiders (those who are not family members). It has been noted that marriages are arranged so that the recipe can be passed on to a family seeking it.” I leave you to decide whether such counts as a shotgun wedding.
Trying to define barbecue often sets off a fireworks display that rivals anything you saw on the 4th of July. In the spirit of stoking that fire, I ask, should the New England clambake fit under barbecue’s big tent?
Though barbecue is now the consensus meal for Independence Day celebrations in much of the country, it’s not our nation’s only outdoor-cooking tradition. In the nineteenth century, the clambake was just as popular in New England as the pit barbecue was in the South. They share some common elements: digging a pit in the ground, burning hardwood down to coals and embers, using a variety of meats (some clambakes also feature lobster, chicken, and sausage) and wrapping the food—seaweed and canvas for clams; aluminum foil and burlap for pork or beef—to create steam and/or minimize burning. The successful “bakemaster” and “pitmaster” are both revered in their communities.
Of the many differences between clambakes and barbecues, an intriguing one is how each tradition accounts for its heritage. While acknowledging the Native American contributions in southern-style pit barbecue has waned over time, some scholars have argued that such influences are actually exaggerated within the clambake. In any case, if they’re cooking over a wood-fueled fire, I’ll invite New Englanders to bring their clams to the barbecue table.
July is National Bison Month, and bison meat is roaming in from barbe-culture’s fringes to its mainstream. However, barbecue purveyors tend to offer just bison ribs and forsake the rest of the animal. (You may have had a bison burger—they’re pretty tasty for such a lean meat—but that is, of course, not barbecue.)
There’s a lesson to be learned from Native Americans who developed a method for pit-cooking the entire animal. Chief Plenty-Coups of the Absarokees (Crow Indians) recalled in a 1930 interview:
We used to dig a hole in the ground as deep as my waist…. We would heat little boulders until they were nearly white and cover the bottom of the hole with these stones. Then we would cut many green boughs from the chokecherry trees and cover the hot stones a foot deep with them. Upon these we would place thick chunks of buffalo meat, fat and fresh from the plains, sprinkling them with water…. Finally we spread the animal’s paunch over the hole, covered it all with its hide, put gravel on this, and kindled a log fire. Men kept the fire going all day and all night yet never burned the robe…every bit of good in the buffalo was in the pit. Little was wasted except the brains. I have made myself very hungry telling you this. I will talk of something else to forget meat-holes.” *
Here’s hoping that today’s pitmasters will remember the meat-holes and rise to the challenge.
*Quote from American: The Life Story of a Great Indian by Frank B. Linderman (first published 1930).
I’ve written about our nation’s wildest barbecue, and in the middle of it all was Columbus B. Hill, the event’s chef de cuisine. Chef Hill’s reputation was sullied by the event, but before that, he was a well-known “barbecue man.” The Greeley (CO) Tribunereported in 1894 that “Hill is a colored man and has a great reputation as a barbecue cook. He has officiated at more barbecues the past twelve years than any other man in the Union. From Missouri to the Lone Star State he has baked meat for hungry thousands and he thoroughly understands his business.”
In 1902, Hill was still working to rebuild his image from the 1898 Colorado catastrophe. He told the Denver Times, “This method of serving meat is descended from the sacrificial alters of the time of Moses when the priests of the temple got their fingers greasy and dared not wipe them on their Sunday clothes.”
Chef Hill got good press in his era, but many African American pitmasters went unheralded outside of their immediate community. Still, these barbecue ambassadors played an important role in both maintaining barbecue culture in the South and spreading it to other parts of the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Epilogue: The Food Network’s recently debuted “Chopped: Grill Masters” mini-series has no African Americans among its host, three judges, and sixteen competitors. Chopped usually does a good job of representing a diverse cross-section of American chefs among its contestants. Of course, “grill master” isn’t the same thing as pitmaster. But I continue to ask…what gives?
There’s been some big food and drink news on the campaign trail of late, from Paul Ryan’s catfish-noodling hobby to President Obama’s home-brewed “White House Honey Ale.” They got me wondering if barbecue had ever taken center stage in a presidential campaign. (Well, since this one.)
Barbecues as a social event/fundraiser have a deep tradition in U.S. politics, but I think that Lyndon Johnson took things to another level in his effort to make barbecue a symbol of his 1964 re-election campaign. That summer, the Baton Rouge State-Times reported that Johnson had a “plan to turn Texas barbecue into a political weapon” with a “cross-country series of barbecues supervised by the barbecue chef from the president’s LBJ ranch in Johnson City, Texas.” The “barbecue chef” in question was Walter Jetton, a pitmaster and caterer from Fort Worth.
What distinguished this ambitious plan from past campaigns was that it aspired to take Texas barbecue to the uninitiated masses in cities like Beverly Hills, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis. The St. Albans (Vermont) Messenger reported in October 1964 that Johnson even contemplated occupying Wall Street with a massive, open-air barbecue where “several or more blocks of the nation’s financial center would be roped off.”
The idea was nixed by New York Democrats, who felt it was “too corny for Manhattan, especially for the President of the United States.” I wonder what they—and LBJ himself—would have made of today’s Big Apple Barbecue Block Party.
I first heard of Australian barbecue in the 1980s, when actor Paul Hogan (of Crocodile Dundee fame) promised me through the TV that he’d “Put an extra shrimp on the barbie” for me, if only I visited the Land Down Under. I figured out that Hogan was talking about a grill and not the iconic doll, but any further conclusions remained elusive.
Decades later, the “Barbie Babes,” a team of three native Australians competing on the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, raised my hopes for finally getting some answers. That was before their team was eliminated during the show’s second episode—far too soon to share their spin on barbecue with America. Still hungry, I reached out to Awia Markey, an Aussie who’s writing a book on soul food. After polling a cross-section of her friends, Markey gave me this description: “The most basic form of BBQ is known over here as the ‘Sausage Sizzle’…always with [grilled] onion, and then the sausages and onion are put between two slices of (usually) white bread.” Other meats can be the choice entrée, including lamb chops and, of course, shrimp.
I’m so relieved that Crocodile Dundee didn’t lie to me in my youth.
Typical sides at an Aussie barbecue include a green salad, potato salad, coleslaw, and beets. Though the Australian version doesn’t meet the “low and slow” standard necessitated by purists, it’s an interesting example of how a culinary art is practiced elsewhere on Planet Barbecue.
When I visited Argentina several years ago, I discovered a nation wholly devoted—in more ways than one—to their barbecue tradition, known as asado. In his book Planet Barbecue, Steve Raichlen definesasado as “gaucho (cowboy)-style barbecue, made by roasting whole lambs, pigs, and sections of beef ribs in front of a campfire. This is generally done at the estancias (ranches) of the Pampas, but also at restaurants in Buenos Aires.” The cook splays the salt-and-pepper-rubbed meat on a metal, cross-like contraption that has a sharp, speared edge on the bottom. The entire set-up is stuck in the ground and angled toward a slow-burning wood fire. Not only do Argentines cook the whole animal, they serve parts that you wouldn’t find at most stateside barbecues. Don’t be surprised if innards show up on your plate—mollejas, or sweetbreads, are especially popular. (As a guy who eats chitlins, I wasn’t fazed by this at all.)
Asado is also served with chimichurri, a sauce made with fresh parsley, oregano, garlic, oil and vinegar, and red pepper flakes. I vaguely recall some vegetable salads at that meal, but they were obscured by the pile of aromatic asado before me. It showed me once again that barbecue people keep things in proper perspective…wherever they are in the world.
South Africa: Where Barbecue Brings People Together
The 2010 Lonely Planet: Africa travel guide states, “Perhaps more than anything else, it’s the braai* (barbecue) – an Afrikaner institution that has broken across race lines – that defines South African cuisine.” This is an amazing development, given that South Africa’s barbecue tradition long emphasized racial difference. Laurens van der Post wrote in African Cooking (1971) that Afrikaners (white South Africans) held a large braai every December 16 to commemorate the decisive victory on that date in 1838 of their expatriate European ancestors over the indigenous Zulu army. That battle propelled the country’s policies of racial separation and discrimination that formally ended in 1994. Since then, South Africans of all backgrounds have endeavored to forge a society that can overcome its painful history.
As the American experience shows, legally ending discriminatory policies does not immediately translate into improved race relations. A critical step is a willingness to break down social barriers, to make an effort to get to know the “other.” Braai—short for braaivleis, which means “roast meat” in Afrikaans—has become a perfect vehicle for doing that in South Africa.
Claud Cloete, a South African pentathlete who competed in the 1996 Olympics, shared with me that braai is usually done over a wood-burning fire and the typical meats cooked are boerewors (a thick beef sausage), pork or lamb chops, and chicken. In addition, no braai is complete without potjiekos, a spicy meat and vegetable stew. Cloete said that fewer braais happen in the crowded black townships (which still exist) because of space constraints and limited resources. Increasingly, white and black South Africans spend weekends at their suburban homes bonding over braai…together.
For a few years now, South Africa has recognized an official National Braai Day in September. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is the event’s official patron. The event specifically encourages fellowship across demographic groups. This year, National Braai Day falls on Monday, September 24 —so you still have time to order boereworsfrom your butcher.
Just ask a hardcore barbecue devotee to list the signature foods of different barbecue regions. Almost reflexively, that person will tick off items like whole hog in parts of the Carolinas, coleslaw-topped pork shoulder sandwiches in Memphis, beef brisket in Texas, “burnt ends” of brisket in Kansas City, and so on. One regional favorite that may get overlooked is Chicago’s famous rib tips. As Lolis Eric Elie explained in Smokestack Lightning, “There are four different cuts of ribs—the small end, which is the most expensive, the center cut and that the large end, which are slightly cheaper, and the rib tips, which are the tougher top portion of the spareribs.”
Keeping in good company with other barbecue delicacies, rib tips have humble origins that trace back to Chicago’s stockyards in the 1940s and 1950s. “Before we started buying them, meat wholesalers were throwing the back side of the rib cut away—as garbage,'” Leon Finney, Sr. told the Chicago Defender newspaper in 1979. If anyone should know the pre-history of rib tips, it was Finney. He moved from Mississippi to Chicago’s South Side in the 1940s, and soon afterwards, opened up Leon’s Bar-B-Q.
As one would expect with barbecue, there’s some dispute about who started selling rib tips first, but eventually, Leon’s, Lem’s Bar-B-Q and other African American barbecue joints in the area featured the specialty. Dennis H. Cremin, in his book Chicago: A Pictorial Celebration (2006), gives us a great verdict on whether or not Leon’s and rib tips may lay claim to a central place in Chicago’s barbecue lore: “Although off the beaten path, Leon’s sells a staggering half-million pounds of rib tips a year—that’s just how good they are at Leon’s.”