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‘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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From barbecue’s origins in traditions surrounding the roasting of meat in West Africa to its role in plantation gatherings to its place in the story of the Gabriel Prosser rebellion and the Nat Turner insurrection (they both began with clandestine barbecues), Twitty says, “it’s an art form that was essentially in the hands of black cooks for centuries.”

He also credits African Americans with spreading barbecue to parts of the United States outside the South. “Black people are Southerners, too. We may be once or twice removed, but we’re still Southern,” he told me, joking that “Detroit is essentially at the most northern part of Alabama.”

Thus, this food historian calls African Americans “the primary ambassadors of Southern culinary culture outside of the region.”

The Source of the Confusion

How did we get to a point where we have people without ties to Southern or black culinary traditions using the word “barbecue” to refer to throwing wieners on the grill?

According to Twitty, in the 1950s, in the nearly all-white suburbs that emerged after World War II, “barbecue” gradually began to be used in reference to anything cooked on what was newly marketed as a “barbecue grill.” Suddenly, he says, “the American dream was to have that grill in your backyard and to make your hamburgers and hot dogs with your family and have fireworks. You had the image of the white mom with the apron with hamburgers and hot dogs.”

But “that image was never us,” he says. “I’ll tell you what was us: us in that pit, over a hole in the ground.”

So your friends didn’t lie on the invitation. They had a barbecue. Just one that comes from a tradition altered enough to be nearly unrecognizable. Next time you’re either going to have to dig into their familial origins or come right out and ask what’s on the menu (let me know if you find a polite way of doing that) if you want to predict what you’ll be served.

As I made some inquiries about your question, I also learned that there’s a related debate about having a “cookout” versus “grilling” that involves everything from the number of guests to the appropriate side dishes. It’s beyond the scope of this answer, but believe me—it’s complicated! Bottom line: Bring up anything to do with the outdoor preparation of food, and there’s really only one response that transcends race, region and culture: “Where’s my invitation?”

Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.