‘Barbecue’ vs. ‘Cookout’: What Race Has to Do With It

Race Manners: Terminology for outdoor cooking is where culture, region and meat collide. Here’s what the word you use for your gathering says about who you are and where you’re from.

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Twitty is insistent that a “real” barbecue has some requirements. Simply inviting friends over and cooking outdoors won’t cut it.

 “A barbecue has to take several hours to better part of a day to cook,” he says. “I need to see some wood, charcoal or something to cook the meat low and slow. A cookout is different—it’s not a long, drawn-out process; there’s no ritual there. And don’t even talk to me if you have a gas grill.”

So we have the barbecue basics: charcoal or wood and a “low and slow” cooking process (which, by definition, involves something more than hot dogs and hamburgers).

Once you meet that baseline, there’s some flexibility, mostly based on geography. Twitty says he can predict where you’re from based on what kind of meat you’re talking about cooking: “If I hear brisket, I’m hearing Texas or Oklahoma. If I’m hearing pork, I’m hearing the majority of the South. Ribs? Central South. Whole hog? Carolina. Chicken is ubiquitous. Fish and game and goat and stuff—that’s very much the edge of the South: Florida, Texas, Georgia. But it all has a common origin.”

The Culture Thing

That origin is Southern culinary tradition, which Twitty calls “a co-created culture that comes out of the collision of African, European and Native American culture.”

So your mom was right to attribute your cookout miscommunication in part to where you grew up. People of all ethnicities from the South (or other places heavily influenced, thanks to migration, by Southern cooking) would have had the same shocked reaction you had when you arrived at your friends’ homes and discovered what was being served under the name “barbecue.” Just think of BBQ Pitmasters. Lots of enthusiasm for traditional barbecue of the type Twitty describes there. Not a whole lot of brown faces. So, to be clear, this is as much about place as it is about race.

The Black Thing

But how did barbecue get its start in this country? Black people.

“Barbecue is definitely a part of African-American culture,” says Twitty. (Mind you, he says, “people mess up phenotype and culture,” and he’s talking specifically about the black experience in America versus ethnicity.)