Editor’s note: This story was originally published June 4, 2014.
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.
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.
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.)
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.