Barbecue in Black and White

Carving the racism out of Texas barbecue mythology

But Houston's barbecue contest is symptomatic of the historic racial divide that runs through the middle of Texas barbecue with far more serious consequences. This division wasn't the result of intentional racism, either. It's just that according to Texas mythology, barbecue belongs to white people.

Paper plate in hand, I found a spot at one of the tables set up on the quadrangle of the Ole Miss campus. The pork shoulders had been smoked over hickory until the meat was as soft as mush. I ate mine on a hamburger bun with a vinegary sauce.

Louis Archendaux and his Skinner Lane Gang have been breaking the color barrier at Texas barbecue cook-offs for nearly 20 years.
Daniel Kramer
Louis Archendaux and his Skinner Lane Gang have been breaking the color barrier at Texas barbecue cook-offs for nearly 20 years.
The open-pit style of barbecue came to Texas from the Deep South, as did the custom of blacks doing the cooking.
Texas State Archives
The open-pit style of barbecue came to Texas from the Deep South, as did the custom of blacks doing the cooking.

The sandwich was delicious, although it's hard for Texans to accept that squishy pork on a bun is actually the purest form of barbecue. Most Texans are equally reluctant to admit that the issue of race has any relevance to the subject of smoked meat in the Lone Star State. And that puts them at odds with the Southern barbecue experts who gathered last October for "Barbecue: Smoke, Sauce and History," a symposium held by the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

At the three-day conference, academics, food writers and chefs from across the country assembled to debate, pontificate about and consume their favorite subject. The meals were catered by some of the most famous names in Southern barbecue, black and white. Supervising the cooking at this particular event was the famous pitmaster Devin Pickard from Centerville, Tennessee.

Barbecue and race have long been emotionally intertwined in the South, where the pit-smoked pork is viewed as a totem for both whites and blacks. Southern culinary historians are accustomed to navigating carefully around the issue of who the true progenitors of Southern barbecue were.

Most scholars agree that the cooking style came from the Caribbean, or at least that's where it was first observed by Europeans. The word initially appeared in print in the English language in 1661. In 1732, Alexander Pope was already writing about the craving: "Send me, Gods! a whole hog barbecu'd."

In colonial times, barbecue was common in the Carolinas and Virginia. Whole hogs cooked over smoldering coals in long pits was the usual methodology. By the height of the plantation era, no political rally, religious revival or civic celebration in the Deep South was complete without a barbecue. Whites obviously did the organizing, but who did the cooking?

In the heart of Dixie, evidence suggests that African-Americans did the work. "It was said that the slaves could barbecue meats best, and when the whites had barbecues, slaves always did the cooking," wrote a former Virginia slave in the Autobiography of Louis Hughes.

But there are also Southern barbecue traditions, in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and elsewhere, where whites manned the pits.

"Did blacks create Southern barbecue?" I ask Lolis Eric Elie, the black author of the widely acclaimed barbecue book Smokestack Lightning and a staff writer for New Orleans' Times-Picayune.

"You can't draw a straight line between black and white contributions to Southern culture," Elie says diplomatically. "But you can't ignore the fact that the South is distinct from the North because of the presence of so many black people. And many white Southerners are still afraid to acknowledge the African influence that flows through their food, their music, their manner of speech and their attitude toward life."

The origins may be hazy, but there can be no doubt that barbecue became central to black identity in the South after the Civil War. Black barbecue stands on the side of the road sold the favorite barbecue of the Old South. And because of the fame of black barbecue, "whites, in a strange reversal of Jim Crow traditions, made stealthy excursions for take-out orders," according to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

But a combination of forces conspired to take the barbecue business away from its rural black roots. Urbanization, new sanitary regulations enacted during the Progressive era, and strict segregation laws gave white-owned barbecue businesses major advantages.

At the symposium, we watched a documentary called Smokestack Lightning: A Day in the Life of Barbecue. In the video, Elie asked the owner of Charles Vergos Rendezvous, perhaps the most famous barbecue joint in Memphis, about the origins of the Tennessee barbecue tradition.

"Brother, to be honest with you, it don't belong to the white folks, it belongs to the black folks," Vergos said. "It's their way of life, it was their way of cooking. They created it. They put it together. They made it. And we took it and we made more money out of it than they did. I hate to say it, but that's a true story."

One of the hottest topics at "Smoke, Sauce and History" was the continuing saga of South Carolina's white barbecue king, Maurice Bessinger. When the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina state house in 2000, Bessinger lowered the giant American flags he once flew over his nine Piggie Park restaurants and raised the Confederate flag instead. It wasn't the first time Bessinger had taken a rebel's stand; in the early 1960s, he refused to integrate his barbecue joints until forced by the courts. This time the reaction came from the market: After protests by blacks, national chain stores refused to continue carrying Bessinger's popular barbecue sauce. Bessinger sued the chain stores claiming his right to free speech was being violated.

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