‘Barbeques were important not only because they were popular social gatherings—in fact, they were enormously popular—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.’

—Sean Busick, ‘Political Barbecues of the Old South,’ Abbeville Institute Summer School 2006

 Barbeques could also be political as well as social, and were held to rally support before an election, to entice voters to the polls on the very day of an election, or to celebrate the results of an election.

Political barbeques were notorious venues for the bribery of voters with food and drink, not to mention the spoils of office. New-England Yankees like Josiah Quincy bemoaned the stump-speechmaking that was done ‘in this quarter of the country while the gin circulated, while the barbecue was roasting.’

Political barbeques did not necessarily have a decent reputation in Southern society, either. For example, in An Irresistible History of Alabama Barbecue, the author Mark A. Johnson documents how a political conflict between the small-farmer and large-planter classes in Madison County, Alabama, manifested itself as a nineteenth-century ‘culture war’ over barbeques.

In the summer of 1827, a pseudonymous reformist, ‘Barbacuensis’ (Latin for ‘from the barbeque’), disgusted with the debauchery and demagoguery on display at barbeques, started an anti-barbeque campaign in a series of letters to the local conservative newspaper, The Southern Advocate. His argument can be summarised in the poem wherewith he opened his first letter:

Did’st ever see a Barbacue? For fear

You should not, I’ll describe it to you exactly:

A gander-pulling[1] mob that’s common here,

Of candidates and sovereign stowed compactly,

Of harlequins and clowns with feats gymnastical

In hunting shirts and shirt-sleeves—things fantastical;

With fiddling, feasting, dancing, drinking, masquing

And other things which may be had for asking.

 ‘Turn at last from shote and grog,’ rhymed Barbacuensis, ‘and act the man, and not the hog.’

‘The joy of the occasion was not confined to the voters exclusively,’ complained Barbacuensis. ‘In such an outpouring of liberty and unbounded license, slavery forgot its chain, and the tawny sons of Africa danced, sung, and balloeed [sic] in sympathetic freedom.’ Modern Marxoid ‘food historians’ would categorise this revelry as a form of ‘everyday slave resistance,’ no doubt, though in truth that is too militant of a term for the ‘give and take’ that tempered and gentled slavery. What you will not hear from these food historians is that in the ‘Free States’ north of the Mason-Dixon Line, black people dancing, singing, and ‘ballooeing’ as was tolerated at Southern barbeques was intolerable, if not literally illegal.

Unfortunately for Barbacuensis, political barbeques remained a staple of Southern political culture. During the presidential election of 1860, the Alabamian ‘Fire Eater’ William Lowndes Yancey stumped at barbeque after barbeque that Southerners must ‘throw off the shackles, both of party and Government,’ and ‘assert their independence in a Southern Confederacy.’ At the same time, Alabamian unionists hosted barbeques of their own in support of the Constitutional Union Party’s presidential candidate, John Bell of Tennessee. ‘We had a glorious day yesterday,’ an Alabamian unionist reported of a pro-Bell barbeque at Huntsville in the summer of 1860, which he claimed ‘surpassed anything ever before witnessed in Alabama.’ According to the reporter, ‘there are a good many Democrats who love the Union’ and who believe that Bell is ‘the man to beat Lincoln.’[2]

During Reconstruction, Alabamian Democrats held political barbeques to reorganise their party in opposition to their Republican-occupied state government. After the Fifteenth Amendment enfranchised the newly emancipated blacks, Alabamian Democrats held barbeques to win over black voters from the Republicans. ‘They gave them barbecues and made speeches, and got colored men who were Democrats to go around with them and make speeches,’ a white Alabamian attorney from Sumter County testified to a Congressional committee on Reconstruction. ‘The hatchet seemed to be buried between the two races during that canvass.’ Most freedmen voted Republican, however, out of loyalty to the party of Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Thirteenth Amendment.

Alabamians held barbeques to commemorate the lost Confederate cause whilst also celebrating national reunification. At one such barbeque in Montgomery on the Fourth of July in 1879, five thousand former Confederates gathered to honour ‘the wisdom and patriotism of the men of 1776’ and ‘the principles for which their forefathers contended.’ There, letters from former Union generals George B. McClellan and Winfield Scott Hancock written specifically for the occasion were publicly read.

Events such as this heralded the advent of the ‘Great Compromise’ reunifying these United States, a compromise which has since been dishonourably abolished.

Alabamians held barbeques as fundraisers. In 1901, George M. Newstelle, a black civic leader, held a barbeque for the benefit of the Negro Business League of Montgomery. ‘We took it upon ourselves to give a barbecue with the two-fold object of increasing our funds and at the same time making an effort to increase our membership,’ he wrote in a monthly journal for freedmen. ‘During the day of the barbecue we not only netted a nice little sum of money, but we also secured quite an addition to the membership of the league.’

At the other end of society, Stella Guice, the president of the Barbour County chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, began holding barbeques in 1897 to fundraise for the construction of a Confederate monument in Eufaula. By 1904, the monument was complete, and ten thousand Alabamians attended the unveiling, where prayers were given and a roll call of former Confederate units from the county was taken. According to a reporter from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the monument was ‘as much a monument to their loving loyalty to the memory of the Confederacy as it was to the courage and devotion of their old comrades.’

The grandest and most famous of these Confederate monuments have lately been overthrown in an iconoclastic moral panic, but many humbler ones such as Eufaula’s still stand, and whenever I see one I send my compliments to the local authorities.

As with everything authentically American, the history of barbeque is thoroughly multi-cultural and is unclassifiable under the Nuremburg-esque code of identity politics. Many of the great cultural leaps forward in human history have come from cross-cultural encounters, and cuisine is no exception. Barbeque may be the folk cuisine of the American South, but it is also a form of fusion cuisine which no one nationality or ethnicity can claim for itself.

Barbeque is not ‘black,’ despite what the sort of ‘food historians’ who ‘cancelled’ John T. Edge may say.[3] Yes, as slaves were traded from the West Indies to the North-American seaboard, they brought ‘barbacoa’ (the word and/or the food) with them. Yes, as freedmen traveled north during ‘The Great Migration,’ they brought barbeque to the rest of these United States, which may be why many Americans north of the Mason-Dixon assume that barbeque is black. Yet it was the Indian natives who invented the technique and technology of cooking barbeque, however, and the European colonists who improved it with better-quality implements and ingredients (unless you are a pre-Columban purist and prefer rodents and reptiles to pork and beef, which I rather doubt).

None of this is meant to depreciate the African-American influence on barbeque. It was they who, at the barbeques, did the sooty, sweaty, smoky work of digging the ditches, shoveling the coal, and cooking the meat. In a welcome twist of history, black people have gone from slaves cooking barbeque for their white masters to pit-masters selling their barbeque to fellow white citizens.

Spare ribs, for example, were the thinner, bonier leftovers from a whole-hog barbeque which slaves resourcefully transformed, along with other unsavory-seeming leftovers such as innards/chitlins, feet, and snouts (all ‘soul food’ ingredients). Spare ribs are prominent in the regional barbeque tradition of the Mississippi River Delta, where because of the fertile black soil there was a high concentration of black slaves, and where the black population remains highly concentrated to this very day. (Hence another term for this particular region of the American South, ‘The Black Belt.’) In yet another twist of history, ribs—once passed over by white people for meat higher on the hog—are now one of the most popular pieces of barbeque!

Some, dare I say, may see this as a sign of progress—of ‘cultural appreciation’ instead of ‘cultural appropriation.’

Whilst the African-American influence on barbeque is well-known, that of other peoples, such as the German-Americans, is less-known, at least by the average American consumer of barbeque. Pork was already a common meat among Germans, so when they were introduced to barbeque in the Southern colonies, they not only adopted it but also adapted it to German cuisine.

In the late nineteenth century, German settlers in the Carolinas began experimenting with traditional barbeque sauce, mixing in the German products of ketchup and mustard. Hitherto, barbeque sauce was either a vinegary and peppery mixture derived from the citrus juices and spices that the West-Indies natives used on their barbacoa but which were in scarcer supply in North America (what John Shelton Reed terms ‘The Mother Sauce’), or a greasy mixture that was more traditionally English (what he terms ‘The Founders’ Sauce’).

Today, barbeque sauce, whether on the sweeter or the spicier side, is now predominantly ketchup-based and thereby German-influenced. Even in the Delta, where there is no direct German influence, the sauce is still ketchup-based. Ketchup über alles?

The divergent backgrounds of the Carolinian Germans explain why North-Carolinian sauce is ketchup-based and South-Carolinian sauce is mustard-based. The North-Carolinian Germans were from the regions of Bavaria (today southern Germany) and Moravia (today eastern Czechia) and had originally settled in the Shenandoah Valley. Thence, they traveled southward and settled in the foothills east of the Appalachian Mountains, a region known as the ‘Piedmont’ (the Anglicisation of the Italian name for the foothills south of the Alps which translates as ‘mountain foot’). When ketchup became commercially available, these Germans began using it to sweeten and sour the flavour of the traditional Tidewater sauces in a way that was more familiar to them.

The South-Carolinian Germans, however, were not Bavarians or Moravians from the Shenandoah Valley, but were recruited directly from the Palatinate region (today western Germany). After the Yemassee War from 1715-1717 devastated South Carolina’s population, the colonial authorities actively recruited from the Palatinate to settle in the upcountry, whence the Indians had raided the lowcountry. These Germans, who had a reputation as orderly and hardy small farmers, were promised free passage and free land. (Moreover, they were Protestants rather than Catholics, but—as an added bonus—as Lutheran Protestants rather than Anglican Protestants were still ineligible to hold office under the religious tests of the time and thus posed no political threat to the Anglican Anglo-American elite.) In what was surely an innocent oversight, no mention was made in these recruitment pamphlets that they would be acting as a buffer for Indian raids!

In the eighteenth century, there was no German nation-state: ‘Germany’ referred to the hundreds of principalities comprising the Holy Roman Empire, which could differ from each other as much as foreign countries and which, as matter fact, encompassed not only present-day Germany, but also vast regions of southern, central, and eastern Europe. Pork was already a popular meat among most Germans, and mustard was common in the culinary culture of the Palatinate, and thus the barbeque sauce of the South-Carolinian Piedmont where these Palatinate Germans settled is mustard-based.

The German influence predominates in Texas, however. German and Czech settlers in Texas opened meat markets selling smoked meat products, such as sausage and brisket, which itinerant workers (farmers or cowboys) bought and ate there. For sides, the workers bought whatever else the German shopkeepers had stocked on the shelves, such as crackers and pickles, though not any sauce. Now, German-style meats sans sauce define Texas-style barbeque, and German meat markets define the Texas barbeque restaurant.

The traditional side dishes to barbeque, coleslaw or potato salad, come from the German settlers in the Piedmont, who, as aforementioned, traveled thither along the ‘Great Wagon Road’ in the eighteenth century.

Originally, coleslaw, or ‘koolsla’ (Dutch for ‘cabbage salad’), was comprised of chopped cabbage, vinegar, salt, pepper, and mustard seeds. Lettice Bryan’s 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, which contains the first printed recipe for ‘cold slaugh,’ actually recommends that it be served with barbeque. Mayonnaise (which is French) was not mixed into coleslaw until it became commercially available in the early twentieth century, around the same time that ketchup and mustard was mixed into barbeque sauces.

Potato salad, originally known as ‘German potato salad,’ was comprised of boiled potatoes dressed with oil, vinegar, and herbs, mixed with bacon and onion, and served warm. It was not until mayonnaise was mixed in that potato salad was served cold.

The ‘commodification’ of barbeque has changed the culture around it, not only what is served but also how it is served. Now, instead, of barbeque meaning only the pulled pork from a whole hog that is served at traditional communal barbeques, barbeque can also mean a pulled-pork sandwich ordered for one to-go. Nevertheless, authentic barbeque restaurants in the American South still double as the local communal spaces that old-fashioned barbeques were. There, you can find locals of all generations, classes, and races mixing.

Political barbeques have also changed, but barbeque remains a part of Southern political culture. Where candidates once appeared at barbeques which their supporters hosted in their honour, now they make appearances at famous barbeque restaurants.

In ‘How Hillary Clinton Got Smoked in North Carolina,’ John Shelton Reed humorously (and half-seriously) argues that whilst Ms. Clinton ate at ‘Midwood Smoke House,’ a trendy and non-traditional barbeque in the trendy and non-traditional city of Charlotte, Mr. Trump appeared at ‘Stamey’s Old-Fashioned Barbecue,’ a traditional barbeque in Greensboro, the heart of Piedmont barbeque country. ‘I’m not saying that Hillary could have won by eating at Stamey’s,’ writes Mr. Reed, ‘but would it have hurt?’ (Perhaps the Russians hacked her itinerary?) ‘I’m sure that Donald Trump knows as little about North Carolina barbecue as Hillary does, but he got better advice,’ writes Mr. Reed. ‘Somebody even told him to order chopped barbecue, sweet tea, hushpuppies, and cherry cobbler. He came away with a photograph, widely circulated, that showed him posing with the restaurant’s staff, a fine, smiling cross section of North Carolina working people, pretty much the kind of folks who turned out on election day to put him over the top.’

Concluded in Part III, wherein the author begins barbequing and reflects on what it means to ‘cook that you may conserve’…


[1] ‘Gander-pulling’ was a blood sport which spread throughout Habsburg Spain in Europe and, thence, to the Americas, not just in Spain’s American colonies, but in the American colonies of other European countries which were once ruled by the Habsburgs, such as Dutch ‘New Netherlands.’ A live goose was dangled upside-down as men on horseback galloped by and grabbed the goose’s neck with the goal of pulling off its head.

[2] ‘Like Abraham Lincoln, Bell opposed the expansion of slavery and secession,’ Mark A. Johnson writes in An Irresistible History of Alabama Barbecue. ‘Unlike Lincoln, Bell owned slaves and had lived his entire life in the South, which made him palatable to southern voters.’ There was another way wherein Bell differed from Lincoln, however. Bell held that it would be unconstitutional for a State to secede from the Union on its own initiative, as did most in the Upper-South States. Accordingly, in January of 1861, after Lincoln’s election and prior to his inauguration, the Tennessee legislature in a special secession submitted a plebiscite on seceding from the Union which the voters rejected. Yet Bell also held that it would be equally unconstitutional for the Union to coerce the States even if they had unconstitutionally seceded, as did most in the Upper-South States. Bell had met with Lincoln in March, whereafter he claimed that Lincoln had assured him that force would not be used against secession. Thus, when Lincoln issued his proclamation of war, Bell became—to paraphrase the title of historian Daniel W. Crofts’ book on Upper-South unionists in the secession crisis—a ‘reluctant Confederate.’ ‘John Bell, the 1860 presidential candidate of the Constitutional Union party from whom many moderates in the upper South took their cue,’ writes historian James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom, ‘announced in Nashville on April 23 his support for a “united South” in the “unnecessary, aggressive, cruel, unjust wanton war which is being forced upon us” by Lincoln’s mobilization of militia.’ In a statement which Bell issued with other Tennessean unionists, they argued that their State ought to resist the war and applauded their governor for defying the president’s militia quotas. ‘Tennessee is called upon by the President to furnish two regiments, and the state has, through her executive, refused to comply with the call,’ they wrote. ‘This refusal of our state we fully approve.’ Although they preferred a policy of ‘armed neutrality’ wherein they would mediate between the Union and the Confederacy, they would not hesitate to side with their fellow Southerners if it came to war. ‘Should a purpose be developed by the government of over-running and subjugating our brethren of the seceded states,’ they wrote, ‘we say unequivocally that it will be the duty of the state to resist at all hazards, and at any cost, and by force of arms, any such purpose or attempt.’ That April, after Lincoln’s war proclamation, the Tennessee legislature in another special session submitted another plebiscite on secession, this time which passed, as did another on accession to the Confederacy.

[3] John T. Edge is a co-founder and the current director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. He has nobly devoted his life to celebrating black, indigenous, and immigrant contributions to Southern food culture. However intersectional and inclusive as he tries to be, he is nonetheless a man and white, and thus in the summer of 2020 various moochers and looters seized the opportunity to launch a careerist coup against him. (Careerism is one of the lesser-known causes of ‘cancel culture,’ often furnishing its motive and its means.) This made the list of ‘The Wokest News Stories of 2020.’

James Rutledge Roesch

James Rutledge Roesch is a businessman and an amateur writer. He lives in Florida with his wife, daughter, and dog.

One Comment

  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    I find it hard to believe any particular group invented cooking meat over a fire. But I like the article…you and Mr. Meeks need to get together and write more about food. You would have a large audience as most folks, even the imperial, irreverent, history-twisting yankees like to eat meat so long as they don’t have to get their hands dirty doing so. As a matter of fact, there are only a few people I have heard of who don’t eat red meat. The only one I know of for sure is a that guy McPherson, who dines exclusively on silverfish gleaned from books he has torn pages from.

Leave a Reply