‘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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Dear Race Manners:

I’m counting on you to settle this debate once and for all: the cookout versus the barbecue. This is obviously especially important during this time of year, since I recently fell victim to a cookout masquerading as a barbecue over the Memorial Day holiday. I got various invites to barbecues, only to show up and see hot dogs and hamburgers as the only meat on the menu. 

This is not a barbecue!!

I will say that I am black and from the South. The hosts of these “barbecues” (which took place in Washington, D.C.) were neither. My mother tells me this was the issue. It seems that black folk and most Southern folk understand barbecues to be defined as outdoor grilling affairs that must include chicken and ribs and may include fish. Anything else is merely a cookout.

Am I right? Is this a race thing? A culture thing? Can I get a witness? I got caught slippin’ once this summer, but I will be asking for clarity before RSVPing to future invites, lest I be disappointed again. Thank you so much for your prompt attention to this urgent issue. —Cookout Controversy

Yes to all of the above.

Yes, “barbecue” has a traditional, agreed-upon definition common to many Americans. Yes, that definition has layers of cultural and racial history. Also, yes to getting a witness.

The Witness

I asked Michael W. Twitty--who describes himself as “a food writer, independent scholar, culinary historian and historical interpreter personally charged with preparing, preserving and promoting African-American foodways and parent traditions in Africa and her Diaspora and its legacy in the food culture of the American South”—to weigh in on your question.  If you were looking for someone as passionate about this topic as you are, you’re in luck. Meat matters to him. History matters to him. And he couldn’t agree with you more.

The Definition

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM