‘Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the U.S. to Europe’s wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes. Let’s keep it that way.’
—John Shelton Reed
‘I’ve lived in North Carolina for 60 years, but I love Texas barbecue—in Texas. I love Memphis barbecue in Memphis, Kansas City barbecue in Kansas City, and even mustard-sauced South Carolina barbecue, in South Carolina. Barbecue helps to put the there there. Places that try to serve barbecue from everywhere are really serving barbecue form nowhere, for people from nowhere, and I say to hell with it.’
—John Shelton Reed, ‘Mass Barbecue is the Invasive Species of Our Culinary Times’
‘Cook That You May Conserve’ I
My favourite barbeque place, ‘Kojak’s,’ a forty-three year-old family business, closed down a couple of years ago. It was not because of lockdowns, minimum-wage hikes, or supply-chain breakdowns, but because it was located in the midst of what has become a gentrified part of town and a developer made the owner an offer he could not refuse.
I first learned of this place from my old boss, who seemed to know a good ‘hole in the wall’ right nearby wherever we were out in the field. ‘This is the best barbeque you’ll ever have,’ he told me. ‘I always come here whenever I’m in the area.’ Soon I was saying the same myself.
There are other good places to get barbeque in town, of course, though none quite as storied nor as special.
The building itself was a century-old bungalow-style house that had been converted into a restaurant, and many of the people who worked there were family members.
It was such a homey atmosphere that if it was not too busy, I would while away an afternoon there. My ‘three-martini lunches’ were ‘three-meat dinners.’
That was the last place I wanted to go when I moved away from home, and when I moved back home that was the first place I wanted to go. I remember going on dates with my wife-to-be there.
It was the first place that my wife and I went out to eat post-Covid. Maybe we could have had a ‘nicer’ meal somewhere else, but in that exuberant moment there was nowhere else we wanted to be.
Although I was hardly a ‘regular’—I live on the other side of the bay—they always remembered me and my order, no matter how much time passed between my visits.
A place like this and people like that provide more to a community than the food they serve and the jobs they create. Of course, I will miss the flavour of their food, but what I will miss more is how they flavoured my life and the lives of so many other locals.
The historic house will be demolished and replaced with ‘luxury townhomes’ (luxury prices, that is, not luxury quality). The dirt parking lot will be replaced with a concrete parking garage. The messy, mossy live oaks will be cut down and replaced with ‘landscaping,’ if there is even any room for green after they have crammed as many as units as they can onto the property. It could be worse, I suppose; it could be another self-storage facility. Then again, considering the class of people inhabiting these buildings (from Baby-Boomer retirees who just want to grill and golf to Millennial yuppies who believe that craft breweries and food trucks are the epitome of civilisation), perhaps junk is preferable.
Econometrics will record this as ‘growth,’ which to our Red-State government apparently trumps all else. After all, the seller made a profit, the construction will create jobs, and the population increase from new residents means a larger labour supply and higher consumption. Yet all that this technical economic growth demonstrates is that ‘creative destruction’ is un-conservative—contrary to the conservation of people and place. As the Southern Agrarian Donald Davidson put it, ‘Life should determine economics, not economics life.’
In any event, the destruction of my favourite barbeque place—sorry, I mean, the ‘creation’ of new townhouses—inspired me to take up the culinary art myself. For years, I had been casually backyard-grilling, like most American men, but never anything requiring the patience and precision of barbeque. As a classic in Southern cuisine that is a favourite for any festive occasion, I reckoned that this would be one of the ways that I could preserve Southern heritage in in my private life as it was purged from public life, as I had been writing about doing in ‘The Southern Remnant.’
I discovered three books on barbeque by John Shelton Reed—Barbecue (a volume in the ‘Savor the South’ cookbook series by UNC Press), Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, and On Barbecue (a collection of his various writings, well, ‘on barbeque’). I recognised Mr. Reed from his contribution to Why the South Will Survive, the 1982 symposium edited by our own Clyde Wilson as the successor to the 1930 symposium I’ll Take My Stand. Even if you have no intention of barbequing yourself, I still recommend Mr. Reed’s books. He is a fine Southern writer, and his books are full of interesting information about the history of barbeque in the American South (in particular North Carolina, whereto the Tarheel-Stater Mr. Reed is partial). Most of the forthcoming historical information about barbeque comes from these three books.
I also read Searching for Dixie Barbecue: Journeys into the Southern Psyche by Wilber W. Caldwell. I was referred to this book from one of Mr. Reed’s reviews in On Barbecue. Considering how much I enjoyed his books, when he admitted that this was a book that he wished he had written, that was a recommendation which I could not resist. Southerners, who are so used to being laughed at that they hardly even notice it anymore, will happily laugh at themselves as they read Mr. Caldwell’s humorous yet heartfelt tribute, dedicated to ‘the ‘ol’ boys down at the Dixie Barbecue, those resolute living anachronisms, who vainly cling to so many vanishing fragments of the American experience.’ According to Mr. Caldwell, ‘time’ is the secret ingredient in all barbeque—‘seldom found in the recipes of today’s cash-register world, it is the secret to making something good.’
Barbeque—to be specific, since there are lots of global cuisines appropriating the name—means cooking meats slowly at a low temperature with indirect heat from woodfire.
Indeed, I mean no disrespect, but the word barbeque must be re-appropriated, as they say today. Whenever my Armenian in-laws use the word ‘barbeque’ for khorovats—marinated meats skewered along with potatoes and onions to cook inside a tonir—I must confess that I cringe a little. Like barbeque, khorovats is, too, cooked on festive occasions, but barbeque refers to a specific regional and traditional American cuisine. Now, if it were just non-native English-speakers translating their own ethnic meat dishes as ‘barbeque’—gogi-gui=‘Korean barbeque,’ ko’ala= ‘Hawaiian barbeque,’ khorkhog=‘Mongolian barbeque,’ to name a few—I would take it as the compliment that it is.
What bothers me most are Southerners who ought to know better calling any cooking with fire ‘barbeque.’
The word ‘barbeque’ has an American history that is half a millennium old: It is the Anglicisation of ‘barbacoa,’ which was itself the Hispanicisation of the Arawak word in the West-Indies for cooking rodents and reptiles over a pit with citrus juice and spices, a process which Spanish adapted with the livestock they had brought with them.
There are already a number of words for cooking meat with direct heat at a high temperature, so turning the unique ‘barbeque’ into yet another one of these other words adds absolutely no value to the language. In fact, it actually subtracts from it, for now you cannot simply say ‘barbeque’ anymore, but must clarify ‘smoking.’ Yet ‘curing,’ which is not barbeque, is also a form of smoking. No one would call a ‘Virginia Ham,’ or any other meat cured in smokehouses ‘barbeque,’ would they? This is the chaos which ensues when words that once had distinctive meanings become, through ignorance and indolence, synonymous with one another.
Perhaps this is not quite what the modern agrarian author Wendell Berry had in mind when he wrote ‘Standing by Words.’ I would argue, however, that if the degeneration of language is not just a product but a cause of the degeneration of culture, then the degeneration of language around barbeque—a folk cuisine which has been central to the culture of Southern communities—is a cause of the degeneration of Southern culture. ‘Barbeque,’ therefore, is indeed a word for us to stand by.
Barbeque is Southern, but just as there is not one South, there is not one Southern barbeque. On the contrary, barbeque is comparable to college football with its regional rivalries. There are the ‘Big Four’ barbeque regions of North Carolina, the Mississippi River Delta, Texas, and the upstart Kansas City. (‘Kansas City’ may not be Southern, but the migrants to Kansas City who created its eponymous barbeque were Southerners from the Mississippi River Delta.) Each of these regions has a different historical tradition for what meat to cook, what cut of the meat to cook, what sauce and/or rub for the meat, and more.
There are, furthermore, micro-regions with traditions of their own. The intra-state rivalry within North Carolina of the Tidewater versus the Piedmont is as intense as any of the inter-state rivalries. (Think Florida versus Florida State!) My aforementioned favourite barbeque place called itself ‘Oklahoma City-style,’ and was similar to Kanas City in that it, too, originated with migrants from the Mississippi River Delta. That makes sense, as it was a ‘house of ribs,’ and ribs are distinctly Delta-style.
Everyone agrees that, etymologically at least, the ultimate origins of barbeque can be traced back to when the Spanish met the Taino on ‘Hispaniola’ (today the Dominican Republic and Haiti). There is no agreement, however, on how ‘barbacoa’ traveled to the North-American eastern seaboard and became Southern ‘barbeque.’ Like any folk history, each Southerner that you ask will tell you a different story about whence the first American barbeque came, which usually happens to be whence he comes himself.
For instance, according to Lake E. High, Jr. (the author of A History of South Carolina Barbeque), barbeque originated in what is today Parris Island in Port Royal, South Carolina, when the Spanish met the Cusabo. In the sixteenth century, this was ‘Santa Elena,’ the capital of the Spanish colony of ‘La Florida.’ Santa Elena only survived for 21 years from 1566 to 1587, until the Spaniards abandoned it for St. Augustine (the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in what become these U.S. of A.), but according to Mr. High, it was there that ‘barbacoa’ must have made landfall in North America, where it would in time become ‘barbeque.’ Mr. High leaves unexplained how barbacoa spread from a settlement which was abandoned 83 years before the next permanent settlement in the region, ‘Charles Town,’ was founded. Did the Indians carry it on and re-introduce it to the English settlers?
Joseph R. Haynes (the author of Virginia Barbecue: A History) claims that barbeque originated in Virginia, when the British met the Powhatan. According to Mr. Haynes, it was the word barbacoa that came from the West Indies, because the Spaniards were there first, but barbacoa itself—the same technique and technology by another name—no more came from there than did maize, potatoes, tobacco, or any of the other pan-American crops which the Spanish first encountered in the West Indies.
By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Anglicised ‘barbeque’ was appearing in English literature and lexicography, including the famous dictionaries of Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster. According to Doctor Johnson, the noun form of barbeque was ‘a hog drest whole in the West-Indian manner,’ and verb form ‘a term used in the West-Indies for dressing a hog whole; which, being split to the backbone, is laid flat upon a large gridiron, raised two feet above a charcoal fire, with which it is surrounded.’ A dictionary published in 1816 ‘of words and phrases which have been supposed to be peculiar to the United States of America’ defined barbeque as ‘a porket…stuffed with spices and other rich ingredients, and basted with Madeira wine,’ which was ‘used in the Southern states’ but which was ‘not peculiar to the United States; it is used in the West Indies also.’
Barbeque was not just about the food, however, but as much about the event around the food. During the ‘barbeque season’ from the end of spring to the beginning of fall, planters hosted barbeques in turns every fortnight, traveling around the countryside to each other’s homes, where they stayed for the day or even overnight. A barbeque earlier in the day may followed by a ball in the evening, following an interlude for the ladies to retire and refresh themselves whilst the menfolk continued to refresh themselves around the punch bowl.
The barbeque and ball at the beginning of Gone with the Wind hosted by the Wilkes family at their Twelve Oaks plantation, whereunto all the families of Clayton County traveled, exemplifies this social barbeque.
Ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals, were occasions for barbeque, as were holidays. The Fourth of July, which fell in the middle of the barbeque season, was a particularly popular day for a barbeque. John J. Audubon, whilst living in Kentucky in the early nineteenth century, recorded his experience at one such barbeque outside of Louisville. You can read it in biographer Richard Rhodes’ Audubon Reader or at the Audubon Galleries website, and although some of the imagery is rather unrealistically rococo, that idealised imagery evinces how Southerners experienced barbeques, which is indeed historical.
Continued in Part II, wherein you will learn about Southern ‘political barbeques’ and the true multi-cultural history of barbeque…
 ‘Barbeques were important not only because they were popular social gatherings—in fact, they were enormously popular,’ Sean Busick said in his lecture at the 2006 Abbeville Institute Summer School on the Southern Agrarian Tradition, ‘but also because with their accompanying dances, and games, and speeches, and storytelling, they also served to transmit traditional culture from one generation to the next; and of course they also played an important role in the democratisation of American politics.’